Thursday, March 31, 2005

Updated soup recipe below

I made a few changes to my soup recipe, below. All are noted by boldface. The strange part for me is trying to remember what I did as an improvisational cooking experiment about a year ago, trying to imaging what I did do then and what I would do now were I to make another pot.

I'm sure I mis-imagined some things, so if you make it, please email me and tell me what you did and did not like. Or what you changed and how that affected the soup.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Veggie Matzoh Ball Soup

My sister asked about my veggie matzoh ball soup in a comment to the previous post, and I thought it an interesting enough topic to merit its own post.

I don't have a recipe per se for my veggie matzoh ball soup. I like to think of my soupmaking as having transcended recipes, but go with lazy if you'd like.

I'll try and remember what I did for you. I may be making it again in late April, so I'll take notes and post again.

The local Unitarian church had a Seder feast last year, and because so many Unitarians are vegeterians it was decided to have the Kosher (Parve) meal fall on the dairy side of the meat/dairy fault line.

I had attended "meat" Seder feasts, so a dairy/veggie one sounded interesting.

I love a good matzoh ball soup, but I had never had anything but a chicken-based version. I'm a huge fan of chicken 'n' dumplings in all forms, matzoh ball and Italian wedding included. Chicken was so yummy that I couldn't imagine deviating from this form too much, so I decided to try and create a veggie version that preserved the highlights of chicken-based recipes. For my big flavor notes, I went with butter, dill, pepper, and garlic notes in a rich vegetable broth.

I don't remember exactly what I did, but this should get you into the ballpark. Feel free to mess with it, and all measurements are very approximate and most importantly to taste!

I used a three quart pot, so adjust accordingly.

1 medium onion, finely diced (1/8")
1 carrot, finely diced
1 stalk celery with heavy leaves, finely diced
2 green onions, chopped fine
6 cloves garlic, pressed

Add half of the above to 2 quarts water and 1 - 15 oz can vegetable broth, or more broth and less water, turn on heat to low.

Add to pot:
1 tsp sea salt (Important, do not use regular table salt! Salt is a primary flavor of soup, and table salt is far too harsh for good soup. Even cheap sea salt is vastly superior.)

update: don't use "Kosher" salt, either, as it's still sodium chloride. The only difference between it and table salt is the size and shape of the crystals. Once it dissolves, it's the same. "Kosher" salt was designed to be rubbed onto meat during the kosher slaughter process to help preserve the meat and draw out the moisture and blood. It remains excellent for use on meat or vegetables where the size and shape of the salt will remain and matter to the finished dish, such as grilling or roasting. Sea salt is different chemically, and so has a different effect upon our taste buds. It's milder, less "salty", and more complex. Nicer all the way around, in other words. The trace elements are supposedly healthy, but who really knows. You can even get iodized versions, which I use in my salt shaker. I get a normal-sized cylinder of iodized Hain sea salt for about two bucks, which lasts me at least six months. The creme of the crop is the "Celtic" or "gray" sea salt from Brittany, which my local Whole Foods sells for an exhorbitant amount. But it's superb salt.

1/2 tsp black pepper.
1/8 tsp MSG (unless allergic. It does add a nice note if used in moderation, however)
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp onion powder
3 tbsp dried parsley
1 bay leaf
1 tsp dill
dash rosemary
dash thyme
3 tbsp butter (not margarine)
update: dash sage

Melt 2 tbsp butter (not margarine!) in a pan and sautee the other half of the above unused vegetables until lightly browned and carmelized. Add to pot. This is according to chef Paul Prudhomme's theory of flavor layering. Some ingredients can be separated and prepared in different ways before being combined to add complexity to a dish. Carmelized and boiled versions of the vegetables add interesting layers to the final product, as do fresh and powdered onion and garlic.

Finely dice 1 small Idaho potato, or other potato of choice, skin included. Add to pot.
Add 1 cup frozen chopped spinach, from the bag, not the brick.

Cover and simmer over low heat for 1-2 hours, or until all vegetables begin to dissolve into broth. Adjust seasoning and water/broth to taste and adjust water until 2.5 quarts or so. Basically, make the broth taste excellent before adding matzoh balls! It should be good enough on its own to serve as is. This is the key to good soup, the base should stand on its own before the "name" ingredient is added.

Take 1 cup broth and cool to room temperature. Add 1 egg yolk and stir to dissolve. Stir vigorously into pot. This addition of egg yolk helps to blend the oils into the broth.

Add matzoh balls, with added butter as below, cook according to package directions.

I find that Manischewitz instant matzoh ball mix does fabulously, found in the kosher section of most grocery stores. Highly recommended. For this recipe, add two tablespoons of melted butter to the package directions, which one would ordinarily NOT do when making the chicken-based version. I really like the butterly silky matzoh balls, and with the garlicky-dill-peppery veggie broth, don't really miss the chicken.


Variations to the above might include adding a can of navy beans or chopped mushrooms or cream, but I find that the excellent broth and buttery matzoh balls don't need anything else.

On a philosophical note, I'm not Jewish nor do I keep Kosher, but when preparing foods in a tradition such as this, I respect such traditions and find that I enjoy the foods much more when I follow them. It's just polite. In this instance, I found a new and exciting version of a traditional classic by following those same traditions.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

C.H. Week

With Easter quickly approaching, we seem to be fiercely into the annual Charlton Heston week. The Ten Commandments was last night, and even as I type PBS seems determined to play along and is showing 55 Days at Peking. I can't wait for my Ben Hur fix, and will of course giggle all throughout the blatant homosexual imagery (which The Celluloid Closet claims Hes was completely oblivious to). Although, for my money, Olivier was a better Heathcliff.

This past Saturday one local station even replayed the Saturday Night Live episode from '93 where he hosted. The man's got a fine sense of humor about himself, I must say. As an aside, glancing at the hosts/guests list by season, it seems like a decent tool to chart musical trends. '93/'94 was firmly in the grip of grunge, for example.

I do have to point out that the name "Easter" comes from a pagan celebration, and if it were tied to passover like, you know, it is in the scriptures, then it would be in late April this year... just sayin' (I'm looking forward to making my celebrated vegeterian matzoh ball soup for the local seder we attend at the Unitarian Church)

Bunnies aside, there is, however, a lot of symbolism surrounding red eggs which has nothing whatsoever to do with the Germanic goddess. Red eggs seem to occur all over the world in nearly every culture all throughout history. They're still common in Eastern Orthodox tradition, and many images of Mary Magdeline holding a red egg exist (which, I suppose, fans of The DaVinci Code would find highly significant...) One could probably draw a nice line connecting the Greek Orthodox tradition back to the ancient Greek Orphic celebrations involving red eggs. The ancient Romans also seemed fond of them, as did the ancient Egyptians.

The next time you're in the grocery store, note that pickled eggs are often colored red.

In doing a bit of searching, I also found reference to an interesting Chinese tradition where one holds a red egg party to celebrate a baby's first month of life. The symbolism of a red egg featured prominently in one of my favorite alternate history books, Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt, which almost made my SF Literature List, below.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Literary Science Fiction

One discussion I never seem to tire of is what science fiction works should be considered as literature. John Scalzi brought up the question in his blog here, and while I contributed, I just couldn't resist the temptation to blather on even further...

This, of course, begs two rather difficult questions almost immediately:

What is science fiction?
What is literature?

You can write a book, nay, a series of books, on either of these questions. People have. Here's my initial attempt at beginning to answer them.

Science fiction includes some scientific property or problem in a central manner-- whether in setting, plot, character, tone, or what have you. One important point to make is that a book doesn't have to be futuristic at all to be SF. To many people, lots of the starships and zap guns style of SF is more technically fantasy as it doesn't really address any questions of science at all. I don't want to be this picky, however, and I'll allow the Duck Criterion... if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it's a duck.

Fantasy as Literature
is another discussion. Let me know if you'd like me to talk about it. I don't think Lord of the Rings is literature, to start off, even though I think it's one of the best stories ever told.

However, I do want to stress that many other works do feature scientific questions and deserve to be included as SF, even if they traditionally aren't shelved there in the library or bookstore. In the 60s they invented the term "speculative fiction" for SF books which were then marketed as "Fiction" in bookstores, to elevate them out of the very real science fiction ghetto of perception and marketing. This ghetto still exists. Read the NYT Review of Books and see how many SF titles they talk about, or read scholarly journals for the same. Have fun waiting...

And science isn't the same as the hard sciences such as physics, astronomy, or engineering. There are many excellent SF novels which deal with the social sciences like psychology, anthropology, and sociology. Perhaps even the philosophic scientific method should be a criterion, for many novels approach topics with it in mind or in it's manner. There's also a lot of work which deals with the many questions of humanity vs. technology, which I feel can be included in some instances.

The question of what literature might be is a little tougher. I'd start with the following criteria:
Excellence -- demonstrates a mastery of the craft of writing.

Timelessness -- will people still be reading it in a couple of centuries?

Expansiveness -- address questions larger than itself.

Innovation-- did something particularly well or novel.

Depth -- succeeds on more than one level. More than plot, character, setting, and so on, does it lend itself to analysis of abstraction, symbolism, or universality?
Some people would add the quality of literary awareness, but to my mind allusions to other works are certainly nice and add points to "Depth" but aren't strictly necessary.

What's always hard in these types of discussions is the culling out of the many incredibly superb SF novels which just aren't literary. There are just so many books which emotionally I really want to include in such lists, because I'd love for people who don't think they like SF to read them. But, dammit, they're just not literature by my standards so out they go! Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card comes oh, so close... but not quite literary enough *sigh*

Anyway, here's a start on the list of SF novels which I feel qualify as literature, in no particular order:

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (the first SF novel, by the way)
1984, by George Orwell
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuinn
A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller Jr.
The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood
Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes
Novels which I'm not quite sure about, and which I'd love to hear opinions on, are:

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman (somewhat new, may need to age for timlessness' sake)
Doris Lessing's Canopus in Argos series (perhaps too symbolic for its own good)
Dune, by Frank Herbert (the characters are flat)
Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
Childhood's End, by Arthur C. Clarke
A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
Authors who seem to write novels both literary and SF but whom I haven't read enough of to form an opinion about:

Stanislaw Lem
Samuel R. Delaney
Octavia Butler
J. G. Ballard
Novels which I've seen in similar discussions but haven't read yet:
Ada, by Vladimir Nabakov
Woman on the Edge of Time, by Marge Piercy (thought her He, She, It was lacking, though)
The Book of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin (may not be SF)
There are a couple of authors who are both literary and write SF whom I have to exclude because they don't write novels: Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges, but who certainly deserve to be mentioned.

There are many authors who are supremely important in the world of science fiction, but for one reason or another don't quite make the cut into literature like Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein.

And finally, there are postmodern authors who seem to get included in discussions of literature, who arguably do write SF sometimes, but who I think won't be read in a couple of centuries: Dom DeLillo, John Barth, Umberto Eco...

To wrap up, Bruce Sterling coined a new term, "Slipstream", for writing which seems to blur the boundaries between the "Fiction" and the "Science Fiction" sections of the modern bookstore. He wrote an interesting article which concluded with a great reading list if you're ever looking for something good to pick up.

Monday, March 14, 2005


Spent most of the day at the Blue Nile club down in the Faubourg Marigny, for the local celebration of International Women's Day.

Which was, of course, March 8. Odd interpersonal politics demanded that the New Orleans version happen on the 13th, however...

I was there to support M-----, who was reading some wonderful poetry written by Chinese Buddhist nuns, and to help with the powerpoint slideshow she created.

I helped a bit with that, including a nice slide about Hedy Lamarr, featuring this stunning picture. It's possible to create spread-spectrum radio, and look absolutely fabulous doing it!

I also contributed info for slides about women who were profoundly important to math and physics, areas which even still are stereotypically male.

It's a nice slideshow. Let me know if you'd like a copy.

Was given a marvelous button, "Feminist Chicks Dig Me" by Crystal.

I was there as "techy guy" even though when the laptop computer had problems, I was not able to discern a computer port into which my penis would fit. I was, however, able to get the damn thing working again when it decided to lock up. Win XP sucks, and is entirely too "helpful".

"I myself have never been able to find out what feminism is; I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.”
--Rebecca West, speaking in 1913