Monday, July 29, 2013

WHEN YOU'RE EATING TO LIVE TRY THE POLENTA: REFLECTIONS ON READING MFK FISHER'S "HOW TO COOK A WOLF"

Strapatsada, a Greek tomato and egg dish, is a delicious and economical choice... 
“By all means marry; if you get a good wife, you'll be happy. If you get a bad one, you'll become a philosopher.” That’s what Socrates said, and it’s well known that he had an unhappy marriage. So he became a philosopher. I imagine his wife was a horrible cook because soon after Socrates became a philosopher he said: “Eat to live, do not live to eat.” I think what Socrates meant was not to be a glutton or engage in debauchery. Keep to the middle of the road, don’t go overboard. 

I like to remember the “eat to live, do not live to eat” quote every time I go to the supermarket. Everything there is strategically arranged to tempt the buyer! That’s what you call marketing (pun intended). Before you know it, you’ve bought a whole host of things that you have no use for. That’s excess, and that's not a good thing. Socrates would be disappointed as would be MFK Fisher; MFK eschewed excess. Of course, when times are hard, excess is difficult. When the "wolf is at the door," meaning when one is faced with difficult times, ingenuity must come into play. 

MFK Fisher’s book “How to Cook a Wolf,” written during World War II, is devoted to giving ideas on how to eat well during hard times. The book's premise is how to master the proverbial wolf rather than let him threaten. Keep calm, be ingenious and persevere. That's "How to Cook a Wolf!" Clever title, enjoyable book. This was my introduction to MFK Fisher (Thank you, Simona)Fisher was a bohemian, a cook, a gourmet, a journalist and a pioneering food essayist.  In her book, she discusses food shortages, rationing and other difficulties faced in the US during the war.  

Her observations about food contradicted what was commonly believed at the time, but she was right on target: Eat lots of fresh vegetables she said. Have a nice, big salad. Don't forget about seafood. Use wilted vegetables for soup. Make sure your eggs are fresh, even if you have to pay a little more. It will be worth it in the end. Make your food stretch by adding rice or potatoes to it. Save on gas: your oven can accommodate more than one dish at a time. Add the dessert in there along with the main course ... Her ideas about fresh food and food economy are conveyed in a clever, appealing manner. One of these days I may have to try baking her tomato soup cake. Tomato soup? In cake? It's been heard of. It was a pretty common Depression-era and wartime addition to spice cake. Tomato soup was the "mystery ingredient" which allowed cooks to economise on the use of oil/butter, milk, eggs, and sugar. MFK doesn't tell us, but tomato soup makes a cake moister and sweeter. Of course, you know ... don't add it when making a genoise ... 


 MFK Fisher's "How to Cook a Wolf" is the entry for COOK THE BOOKS CLUB, this round hosted by Simona from BRICIOLE.  Read the book, cook what inspires you from the reading, then blog about it.  That's the objective! 

I would not have been able to praise Fisher had I not decided to write what follows, some of my thoughts concerning food shortages in wartime Europe. Once I had those thoughts on paper, I felt a sense of relief and was able to go back and reread "How to Cook a Wolf" with enjoyment. It was Fisher's chapter on how to manage during blackouts that brought back memories of stories heard from relatives concerning how they dealt with blackouts. And with curfews, too. And with fear. During World War II, my family lived in Greece, which was under nazi occupation. Things there were just a tad more serious than in the US (of course, if not for US soldiers, who knows what Europe would look like today). 

In her book, Fisher explained such things as how to cook a tough cut of meat. During the war, my family felt they were rich if they could eat bean soup for dinner. My grandfather was imprisoned and nearly shot because he bought meat from someone who butchered a cow without having gotten permission from the authorities.  Needless to say, the man who butchered the cow (his own cow), was shot. Shot dead. Knowing all these stories, plus lots more, I initially reacted to Fisher’s book with commingled feelings: interest, because this is a charming book, but disdain also because I knew and sympathised with people who had it a lot worse than Fisher's intended readers: Plentiful albeit rationed eating in wartime America, compared to virtual starvation in wartime Greece. Tell me MFK, how do you make a nice meal out of just a handful of raisins? I really don't think MFK, knowledgeable as she was, would have had an answer.



But if during World War II my relatives considered beans to be a rich meal, polenta was their staple meal. They would eat polenta nearly every day. My grandfather was the polenta guru of the clan, cooking it over an open fire in the yard, and stirring it all the long time it needed to be stirred. Then he would take it to my grandmother who poured it onto a platter and flavored it either with petimezi (a syrup made from grapes), or with feta cheese. Polenta made either sweet or savory. My mother has told me that she loved the sweetened petimezi polenta.  

Fisher has a very nice recipe for polenta in the chapter "How to Pray for Peace," and she aptly describes the starchy cornmeal concoction that is polenta as "a sturdy... mixture, the kind that has survived centuries of loving obedience from hungry, simple peoples."  
   
 My version for polenta, cooked in the oven and with feta cheese added.  

I would like to dedicate this post to the persevering spirit of my relatives and the like minded spirit of all war torn families.  For this entry of Cook the Books Club, I cooked two dishes that I heard lots about from my mother: Strapatsada, a dish made with tomatoes, eggs and feta cheese, something of a luxury food during the war. Strapatsada is reminiscent of Fisher's recipe "eggs in purgatory," known across the pond that is the Atlantic Ocean as "uova in Purgatorio." I also made polenta, which was my family's wartime staple. After the war, polenta all but disappeared from Greek dinner tables, but strapatsada is still a favorite.

I cut the polenta into triangles (and for some reason felt compelled to provide olives for eyes), toasted it lightly and served it along side the strapatsada.  A truly summery and enjoyable combination!  

Here is a pertinent war-time story: my cousin Socrates was born during World War II. I am very fond of Socrates, he is a righteous dude. He is named after Socrates, the philosopher.  This is how that happened:

Soon after he was born, the yet unnamed baby Socrates was taken to church, ready and willing to be christened. It’s a Greek tradition to name the newborn after his or her grandparents. And there was the problem. The baby's mother wanted her son to have her father’s name, and the baby's father wanted his son to have his father’s name. For days, the back and forth had been: 

"It's going to be Nicholas!"
"No, it's going to be Constantine!"

Husband and wife could not agree (sound familiar)? They arrived at church still arguing about names. Now the godmother of the baby was to be my mother, who at the time was about 12 years old. Godparents in Greece have special powers. They can execute a coup, and give the baby a name of their own choosing. My grandfather saw that the argument between the baby’s parents was not going to be settled anytime soon, so he approached my mother. 

“Tell the priest to name the baby Socrates,” he whispered in her ear. 

As a compromise, grandfather decided to have the baby named after one of the famous ancient Greeks. You know, Socrates, the philosopher who said “eat to live, do not live to eat.” So the ceremony started, and when the priest asked:

“What is this servant of God going to be named?” my mother belted out: 

“Socrates!” 

So Socrates it was, and Socrates it is. After every christening, there always follows a big celebratory dinner. That’s the point of this story: what do you serve when there is nothing much to be had? Vegetables! My grandparents grew tomatoes in their yard. Plus they had some chickens they kept for the eggs, plus they always managed to get feta cheese. (How they got feta cheese during the war is a very long story. I can email you the details). With those ingredients on hand, they made strapatsada. Lots and lots of strapatsada. And the sweet kind of polenta. And a salad too. A really big salad. Plus they had homemade noodles flavored with olive oil and more feta cheese. Then, there was fruit for dessert. My mother always spoke about that dinner. In the midst of deprivation such a feast made a big impression. I think MFK Fisher would have been pleased with the results. 

Thank you for reading my post, but I am not finished. Reader, hang on. I have one more thing to add: 

Socrates, I love you! 

To make strapatsada, see my recipe here  or  here,   It's delicious and economical.  Serve some and enjoy!  




Sweet Almond Tree says:  How lovely, and thank you so much!






Monday, July 1, 2013

LE CRUESET PORK AND RED PEPPER STEW, FOR NICOLA FULLER

We first met them in Let’s Not Go to the Dogs Tonight.  Author Alexandra Fuller continues the story of her family in the sequel called Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness.
With a narrative that moves skillfully back and forth in time, Fuller introduces us to her ancestors, who left Great Britain for Kenya. Her memoir tells of the love her family came to experience for Africa: a love of the wild, a love of adventure, a love of land, a love of nature.  Many people tell you that Africa can possess the soul. Why?  I believe the abundant primordial landscape, the presence of wildlife, the freedom from conformity, when we experience them, these things strike a fundamental chord within us.  They cannot be exiled from memory, instead they create a permanent love and longing for Africa. It’s a perilous love because along with beauty, danger also abides in Africa. It manifests itself as poverty, war, absence of medical care, death. This dangerous love took hold of Fuller’s family. The memoir focuses on Fuller’s parents, concentrating on the girlhood and adult life of her romantic, adventurous, eccentric, probably bipolar, certainly courageous and always loving and entertaining mother, Nicola Fuller.  Product of British colonial Africa, Nicola along with her husband Tim, leave Kenya but cannot become accustomed to the West.  Before long they return to Africa determined to stay forever.  It is a decision that will cost them dearly.  Low in funds, they choose to settle and farm in politically turbulent Rhodesia, where land can be had for less.
That's Nicola Fuller with her first best friend, Stephen Foster.  Kenya, 1946 
This was in the early 1970s, when the brutally oppressive Rhodesian government, led by Ian Smith, had forced most of the six million black Rhodesians into Tribal Trust Lands, where their actions could be monitored and controlled.  The white colonialists, numbering at about 250,000, did not question the treatment of the blacks, “preferring to believe that theirs was a just life of privilege.  Critics accused these whites of belonging to the Mushroom Club: kept in the dark and fed horseshit.”  A guerrilla war broke out, during which white South Africa offered help to Rhodesia through the use of chemical weapons.  Rhodesia was eventually turned over to the black majority and was renamed Zimbabwe.  The Fullers lost their farm, but more important was the loss of three children and the psychological breakdown of Nicola.  Through it all however, to quote Nicola Fuller, “it didn’t occur to us to leave…  we came to see our lives fraught and exciting, terrible and blessed, wild and ensnaring… (we saw) our lives as Rhodesian, and it’s not easy to leave a life as arduously rich and difficult as all that.”  So they stayed, moving to neighboring countries, trying to find work, looking for a home.  Several years later, they settled in Zambia, eventually building a fish and banana farm, finally being able to savor their love of Africa in relative peace.  They built their new home close to a tree called “the tree of forgetfulness," which according to legend possesses magical powers: by sitting under the tree of forgetfulness all troubles and arguments are resolved.  And "Nicola Fuller of Central Africa," as she likes to call herself, believes this "2 million percent." After her daily work tending her fish ponds at the farm, you will find her sitting under the tree of forgetfulness, pouring herself a cocktail.  Actually her husband Tim (who oversees the banana part of the operation), pours the drinks, Nicola, along with Tim of course, enjoys.  
           The author's mother, Nicola Fuller, likes to cook flavorful stews in her treasured Le Crueset cooking pots.  I think she will enjoy my pork and red pepper stew. 

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness is an extremely engaging book, difficult to put down.  Alexandra Fuller writes with honesty, sensitivity, and where it fits in, with humor. She understands her mother’s viewpoint (which has undergone improvement throughout the years), and she is also clear about the suffering black Africans endured under colonial oppression. One cannot help but be disturbed by the history of colonial Africa, poignantly described here.  However, the book is also populated by a plethora of eccentric characters, be they human, simian, equestrian or canine.  They are entertaining and unforgettable.  Plus there are those Le Creuset pots.  A set of orange Le Creueset pots that move along with Nicola Fuller all the many times she pulls up stakes.  Thousands of delicious, flavorful stews were created in them by her.  The pots, over 40 years old now, are displayed in her kitchen, and they still see regular use. (Buy something of quality and you will have it forever).  
Author Alexandra Fuller, now an American citizen residing in Wyoming, writes lovingly both about her family and about Africa. Her prose shines.  After all she is describing her beloved mother and her beloved Africa.  

This is my contribution to Novel Food, the literary/culinary event hosted by Simona from Briciole.  Read it, cook something inspired by it, and then write a post about it.  For this round I made a lovely pork stew with red peppers. 

I cooked the pork stew in the oven, the low and slow way.  
I used a Le Crueset pot of course, which by the way was green.  In it went chopped onions, fresh tomatoes, potatoes, allspice and bay leaves.  The peppers were roasted separately, peeled and cut into strips, then added to the pot during the last 15 minutes of cooking.  All in all this was a very pleasing, very nice stew, with ingredients that melted in one's mouth.