Sunday, October 12, 2014

Golden Quotebook: Bill Bryson on Chopsticks

Great statement by an unknown artist of genius!

A while ago, in an indignant article about the horrid Chinese habit of frying life dogs, I also gave you a gentle piece of my mind, dear reader, concerning Chopsticks.

Recently I ran in to another author of good taste and good sense, who also had a most amusing word to say about that most anachronistic invention. It comes from chapter 10 of Bill Bryson's 'Notes from a small island', and goes like this:

  • I can't say why exactly, but Chinese restaurants make me oddly uneasy, particularly when I'm dining alone. I always feel that the waitress is saying: 'One beef Satay and fried rice for the imperialist dog at table five'. And I find chopsticks frankly distressing. Am I alone in thinking it odd that a people ingenious enough to invent paper, gunpowder, kites and any number of other useful objects, and who have a noble history extending back 3,000 years haven't yet worked out that a pair of knitting needles is no way to capture food? I spent a perplexed hour stabbing rice, dribbling sauce across the tablecloth and lifting finely poised pieces of meat to my mouth only to discover that they had mysteriously vanished and weren't to be found anywhere. By the time I finished, the table looked as if it had been the centre of a violent argument.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Sole Food Rosalia de Castro

Woooeeee…! Autumn is upon us, dear reader! It is here…. It lingers all around us… In the grim fogs that drift into my valley each innocent morning at dawn… In the chill breeze that enters through the window rashly left open, as soon as the sun sinks helplessly behind the dark silhouette of the ever lower western hills… In the smoke from the fireplaces that neighbours light for the first time in many unworried months… The smoke caused by old abandoned bird nests, from dead mummy-dry leaves gathered atop the damper, from old plastic and paper mindlessly tossed into the hearth in happier days… Sneakily and unnoticed, the vanguard of General Winter has conquered our defenceless Shangri-La!

April may be the cruellest month… But September surely is the most sorrowful! Especially for one my age, who has seen over four score autumns, and many a fall on top of that…

So all of us need something to cheer us up… To get us through the daily dejection… To battle the murky notions that beset us when the blissful season gradually grinds to a halt and gives way to the dark days. And what better than a plate of irresistible Comfort Food, to consume in our cosy kitchen, with the shutters closed, and the wood fire crackling rhythmically and soothingly in the fireplace, with that heavenly Feuilles Mortes by my old buddy Yves Montand on the turntable, and the bottle of Ginjinha close at hand…

Today’s recipe will do the job better than most others I know of, dear reader. It is a miracle dish, of which I first partook nearly half a century ago, when good old Jenö Lakatos, a brilliant chef recently exiled from Soviet-invaded Hungary, was stirring the pots and wielding the spoon in the gourmet kitchen of the Fonda Rosalia (nowadays deservedly upgraded to the Hotel Gastronómico Casa Rosalía) up in the Galician village of Os Anxeles.

The exclusive dining room at the Hotel Rosalia

Jenö, need it be said, was deeply depressed at having been forced out of his native land by Russian tanks. Bitter were the tears he shed into his incomparable Gulash, and his Crêpes Suzette invariably contained far more flaming liquor than the fire department considered safe. But Jenö was also a most philosophical cook, dear reader. He managed to turn his Weltschmerz into a virtue. Having read the sad, sad story of Rosalia de Castro, the tragic lady poet after whom the hotel where he worked was called, he decided to create in her honour, and name after her, a special Gallego dish, full of simple joie de vivre, which will cheer up anyone who groans under his or her unmerited karma. And being an outstanding linguist (you ought to have heard him speak Finnish!) this dish turned out to be, not just Haute Cuisine, but also an outstanding case of kitchen jeu-de-mots.

A rare photo of Jenö (far left) giving a master class at Delmonico's

As he told me one evening in the hotel bar over his irresistible Pálinka Leviathan Cocktail (another of his literary creations, this time in memory of Joseph Roth), finding himself faced with the challenge of creating an original dish which gave Sole-ace and Con-Sole-ation to the needy, he struck on the inspiration of cooking a particularly tender Dover Sole with a strongly soothing sweetened sauce based on mustard, cream and honey. ‘And what else could I call it, kedves Alfred, but Sole Food Rosalia?’ he asked, a smile lingering on his rosy lips, before slipping into a faultless declamation of some of the lady’s most heart-renting poetry… (Did I mention that his sense of humor was as splendid as his linguistic genius?)

So Sole Food it is for us today, dear reader… For all ye who suffer, be it little or be it much… And only need a shoulder to cry on… A pat on the back… And a bite that will lift up your spirits!


1 Sole per person (cleaned, with the fins cut off, but the head left on)
Wheat flour (mixed with salt if so desired)
Frying oil

Sweet butter (i.e. unsalted!)
Half a medium sized onion, chopped
A spoonful of mustard seeds
Unwhipped whipping cream
Soup stock (a beef cube in water will do it)
Mustard (plain, but of good quality, not the plastic squeeze bottle kind)
Honey or sugar

Dille, chives and/or parsley (optional)

NB I volunteer no quantities for most ingredients, since the amount you need depends entirely on the number of soles you are planning to serve, and how much of the marvellous mustard sauce you wish to make. Surely you can figure all that out for yourself. The only rule to observe is that the sauce needs an equal quantity of whipping cream and soup stock.

The sauce

Now then, let us start with the easy bit: the sauce. In a reasonably big and deep saucepan, fry the onions ever so slowly in the sweet butter. Toss in the mustard seeds after a minute or so. Let them get hot enough to pop. Lower the fire under the pan. Next, pour in the whipping cream and - while stirring - put in an equal amount of soup stock. Once the sauce bubbles, stir in the mustard (one teaspoon per sole ought to do it) and the honey or sugar (about half a teaspoon per sole). Let this simmer on for a while, to give the mustard the chance to thicken the sauce. Kill the fire, and set the pan aside on top of a warm, but not hot spot. It may cool down a little while you fry the fish, but should not get cold all the way.

You may put the dille, chives and / or fresh parsley into the sauce together with the mustard and the honey, or – if you prefer – use the green herbs sprinkled on top of the fish as garnish later on.

The fish

Now for the hard part…

Find a clean, left-over plastic bag from the supermarket, and toss a fair amount of wheat flour into it. Now pick up every sole in turn, drop it in the bag, shake with conviction, take out the ‘flouwery’ fish, and put it aside on a plate. You may wish to dry every sole with kitchen paper beforehand. It avoids caking.

Once done, heat the oil in a large, non-stick frying pan until it simmers (a piece of dry bread dropped into the oil will tell you if it's hot enough!) Carefully place the fish in the pan with the 'skinny' (dark) side down. Shake the pan a little to avoid sticking, then fry the fish for about 4 minutes.

Once ready, carefully turn the fish over any way you wish or know… Cook the other side for some 2 to 3 minutes more (careful not to overdo it; it will disintegrate and turn dry of you do! Ask me about it!) At the end of that time, turn off the fire, and make ready to serve on the pre-heated plates.


And now for the hardest part of all… A moment I have looked forward to with terror, and with shame…

As all of you are aware, dear readers, Alfred B. Mittington is a gourmet cook, but… Oh, dare I speak the horrid truth in this digital confessional?? May I blindly trust that the secret so discreetly whispered will be kept faithfully by my deeply beloved culinary confessors?? Okay… I must… So here goes… The truth is, dear reader, that there are some very very very rare things Alfred B. Mittington does not know how to do…!!!

There! I did it! Yes! It’s out! And now, before you have all recovered your breath from your ghastly surprise, I hurry to explain which one of them both is significant to the present context: Dear reader, I confess: I am no good at frying fish…! It simply does not agree with me. I guess in a former life I was some splendid food fish… a giant Tilapia perhaps… or a choice Canadian salmon… and my karma makes sure that whichever one my former family and in-laws I toss into hot oil, and try to turn around sizzly and beautifully roasted, will come out monstrous, to remind me of the horror of my deed…

Let me explain this the audiovisual way.

This is what a gorgeous freshly bought sole looks like before cooking:

This is what it looks like when fried by a master:

And this is what it looks like when I fry it:

If you get my meaning…

Good old Jenö was of course a Master of Masters, a Khan of the Kitchen, a saint who fed the hungary, and so his fried soles slit out of the pan like beautiful, shiny, crisp, appetising jewels. As a consequence, he could permit himself to serve his gorgeously fried Solea Solea on top of a generous splash of mustard sauce, making his Sole Food Rosalia not merely a consolation to the palate, but also a comfort to the eye…

I, on the other hand, humble worm that I am, must be mean, and vulgar, and cowardly. A naked fish fried by myself does not inspire solace, but merely abhorrence. So I turn the order aroundof serving, and if you, dear reader, are as catastrophic as I am when it comes to frying fish, I can only advice you to follow my lead, and improve the visual lure of your culinary creation by being equally spineless.

So, here are my instructions for all you fellow mediocrities: Put the fried sole on a bed of lettuce. Pour a generous amount of mustard sauce on top of it, until the sole is unrecognizable from above. Garnish with a slice of lemon, some tomato, some green herbs if you like, and a few fried potatoes. Serve this with pride, as you respectfully mumble one of dear Rosalia’s more cheerful poems (good luck finding one in her Obras Completas!)

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Now I know why the West is going under…

This morning, dear reader, young Hannibal and fair Ivana stumbled into my kitchen study in search of sanctuary from parental supervision, and as I carefully put aside the brittle cuniform clay fragments of the Gilgamesh Epos which I was translating for breakfast (they break things, these youngster, they break things of invaluable worth…!), they settled down into the more comfortable chairs at the kitchen table and opened their survival kits.

Both took out their tablets; Hannibal one of chocolate, his sister one of Apple. They opened their priced possessions and went to work. I refrained from looking at the boy (Hannibal chewing is one of the less pleasant sights this universe offers), but I did shoot a passing glance at Ivana’s digital activities. And as these new-fangled gadgets no longer have a top which blocks the outside view (as the old, paleolithical ‘laptop’ at least still had) I could not help but perceive what was on the screen. This what I saw:

Now, ever since I helped my good old buddy Oswald with the preliminary chapters of his Untergang des Abendlandes (God, that man was a bad stylist! He would never have made it to his persisting fame without my skilled editor’s help!) I have been a sucker for numbers and mathematics in general. So you’ll understand, dear reader, that this picture fascinated me immediately.

            ‘Dear girl, what in the world is that?’ I asked the fair Ivana.
            ‘Facebook,’ she answered with the unmistakable tone of ‘mind your own damn business old jerk’.
            ‘No, I mean the numbers… Those numbers there…’ I said, pointing cautiously towards the picture (for all I know these screens may explode on touch…)
            ‘Ah, thát. That’s a stupid riddle some dork posted. Says most people will come up with the wrong answer. But it’s simple comme bonjour… A child could do it. Why: even an utter imbecile can do it! You, Hannibal! Stop smearing chocolate all over them shards and calculate this equation…!’

Hannibal dropped my now totally illegible baked clay Gilgamesh, hopped over to his sister’s spot, and studied the Facebook page for 30 seconds over her shoulder.
            ‘Why, that’s easy!’ he exclaimed triumphantly. ‘The outcome is 111,111!!’
            ‘Oh you stupid nerd!’ the fair Ivana exclaimed. ‘Can’t you do anything right? It’s 63, you moron de la frontera!’

I frowned, dear reader. I frowned like nobody frowned ever since they told old Chris Columbus he had not landed in Japan but on the coast of Columbia…
            ‘Mind if I look at that a moment?’ I asked.
            ‘Be my freaking guest,’ the fair Ivana spoke, and turned her tablet 180º towards me.

Well, what shall I say, dear reader? Two immense Oh Weh Erlebnisse were mine in the course of a mere ten seconds. The first was that neither Hannibal nor Ivana had discovered the correct answer. That was small surprise, since they go to school in Spain. But worse still: beneath the posted picture were 131 answers, and not only did these answers vary incredibly and astonishingly, but out of the 131 replies, the correct solution GOT ONLY 32 VOTES!!! With which it came in third!!!

Would you believe it? Can it really be true…? I now understand, dear reader, why the West is sinking. Why its 2,500 year culture is finally going down the drain, swept into the sewers of oblivion by lousy education, Hollywood morality, the Musical Industrial Complex and the tongue of Miley Cyrus… The word ‘mathematics’ has its origin in the Greek for ‘That which is learned’. And there’s the crux: it is learned no longer! Our digital young are almost totally ignorant of even the barest numbers!

Bitter, bitter tears did I shed over lunch, dear reader, thinking of the Hochkultur we inherited from Imhotep, Pythagoras, Euclid, Archimedes, Brahmagupta, Khayyam, Galileo, Gauss, Descartes, Schicklgruber, Newton, Leibnitz, Euler, Einstein, Gödel, Escher, Bach and many, many more… And I am almost ready to throw in the towel and give up my belief in Human Kind.

But perhaps you can help me, and save me, and solace a sad old man. Perhaps you, my dearly beloved readers of taste, sophistication, maturity of years and old-time education WILL score better than the Facebookies who performed so dismally this morning?

So here is the challenge I put to you: calculate the outcome of

7 + 7 : 7 + 7 x 7 – 7

and post it below in the comments (preferably under your own honest name). As soon as I have 25 answers, right or wrong, I will tally up the outcome, and publish the correct solution, with its (simple simple simple) explanation.

And, just for your amusement, here is a summary of the answers I found on Facebook:

0 – 1 – 7 – 14 – 47 – 49 – 50 – 54 – 56 - 91 - and last but not least ‘Albania’.

One of which is actually correct. And one of which I found hilarious (guess which?)

Yours, MathemathicAl.