Sunday, April 20, 2014

Gratin of ...

Sometimes I get annoyed with political writers, especially conservative ones, because it seems to me all they really do is to keep their careers alive chronicling the slow disintegration of the status quo -- whereas at least leftists have a passionate agenda. John Fund at NRO wrote a long article about the SWAT teams that various government bureaucracies now have, and then completely gutted his article of any meaning by saying at the end, of course it would "be politically impossible" to dismantle the SWAT teams. Of course, because everyone knows new government activities are never challenged, and no elected politician would ever try what an intellectual wouldn't.

Then again, just when I think I'm through with these idiots, let them talk to each other and I'll survey the fashion blogs, it tends to happen that I read something stronger the next day. Something written by someone who doesn't necessarily insert "the weasel clause" -- as another frustrated NRO reader put it in a recent comment on the site -- into his allotted three pages of punditry. Today's "Brazen Bull," by Kevin Williamson, is one such. When that happens, I decide to go on keeping abreast of political chronicling, of Majesty's loyal opposition, after all.

Politics is everywhere around us but it introduces such a jarring, uncreative note that I feel I must give you a recipe now, or something about a new scarf or shoe, plus a little more Byron. Here is Don Juan again, from Canto the Third, LXXXVIII. It seems to be about pundits.

But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think;
'Tis strange, the shortest letter which man uses
Instead of speech, may form a lasting link
Of ages; to what straits old Time reduces
Frail man, when paper -- even a rag like this,
Survives himself, his tomb, and all that's his!

Now we will cook something very simple, that you might whip up if you are deputed to "bring something" to an Easter gathering. What follows is a gratin, a dish of any parboiled vegetable layered into a casserole, coated with a cream or a tomato sauce, sprinkled with bread crumbs or grated cheese, and then briefly baked. All this is less a recipe than what employers might call a skill set, -- or just a useful technique to know. I'm sure it's to be found everywhere; I happened to learn it from Bon Appétit's French Country Favorites (Knapp, 1987). Of the scores of possible variations explained on pp.84-85, I opted for Savoy cabbage and the very basic cream sauce and Parmesan topping.

Vegetable Gratin

Parboil about 3 cups chopped Savoy cabbage 15 minutes, until tender. Drain and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 425 F. Butter a small, 1 and 1/2 quart casserole dish.

Make a cream sauce: melt about 3 Tbsp. butter in a small heavy pot, and when it bubbles a little add 3 Tbsp. flour. Cook and stir to form a simmering paste, without letting the roux turn color. Add about 1 and 1/2 cups milk, gradually, stirring to incorporate, until you have slightly thick, creamy sauce. Salt and pepper to taste.

Place the cooked cabbage in the casserole. Spoon the sauce over. Top with 2 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese. Bake for 7 to 10 minutes, until bubbling, hot, and slightly browned. 

The dinner made about a hundred dishes; 
Lamb and pistachio nuts -- in short, all meats,
And saffron soups, and sweetbreads; and the fishes
Were of the finest that e'er flounced in nets,
Drest to a Sybarite's most pamper'd wishes; 
The beverage was various sherbets
Of raisin, orange, and pomegranate juice,
Squeezed through the rind, which makes it best for use.
Don Juan, Canto the Third, LXII. Who knew Lord Byron was such a foodie? And I'm sure he would love that word. Of all poets, he along with Shakespeare seems to have been able to unbend a little, and to have had an actual sense of humor. (On the other side of the scale, this week for the first time in thirty years I read again the dreadful "Richard Cory," by the dreadful Edwin Arlington Robinson. My son had to write a short essay on the poem. I probably had to do the same in my senior year, and probably got about the same remarks in blue pen in the margin from my teacher. I recall also being told that Robinson had a lot of ear aches as a child. Even then I thought he wrote like a poet who had a lot of ear aches as a child.) ... Anyway I feel sure at some point Byron will mention a gratin.

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