Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Tudor year: July

My fatheads know that I sometimes like to import posts from other places -- my own, usually. 

Theme: survival

Lady Jane Grey's prayerbook, believed to be the one she carried to the scaffold. The pale writing at the bottom is a farewell message in her own hand to the lieutenant of the Tower, adjuring him to obey God's laws. (Image from the British Library online gallery.)

July 6: execution of Thomas More, 1535; death of Edward VI, 1553
July 10: proclamation of Jane Grey queen, 1553
July 12: Divorce of Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves, 1540; marriage of Henry to Catherine Parr, 1543
July 19: Proclamation of Mary Tudor queen, 1553
July 26: Marriage of Queen Mary to King Philip of Spain, 1554
July 29: Defeat of the Spanish armada, 1588

Political events moved quickly in an age when royalty -- and its henchmen -- still governed by divine right. Lady Jane Grey's famous nine days as Queen (she was a scion of the Tudor family through her descent from one of Henry VIII's sisters) sped by in mid-July, 1553, after the death of the teenaged king, Henry's long sought son, Edward. In quieter times July would be a month for the royal court to begin its summer progresses to freshly cleaned rural mansions. Smallpox, the plague, and the mysterious "Sweat" were the scourges of the season, especially in London. Filth, sickness, vermin, and bad teeth were a part of all people's lives to an extent that we can hardly imagine. So was hunger and the fear of hunger. In the country, a supply of beef and mutton would already have been slaughtered at midsummer, and would have to last, salted, till winter. St. Swithin's Day, July 15th, was a day for the farmer to look at the sky with apprehension: rain on this day was thought to mean a rainy summer and possibly a spoiled harvest.


Emmison, F.G. Tudor Secretary: Sir William Petre at Court and Home. London and Chichester: Phillimore & Co. Ltd., 1970 (first published by Longmans, Green, and Co., 1961) p. 239

Ibid, p. 253

Fussell, George Edwin. The English Rural Labourer: His Home, Furniture, Clothing, and Food from Tudor to Victorian Times. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975 (originally published by the Batchworth Press, London, 1949), p. 27.

Cressy, David. Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989, p. 28.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Summer: grilled chipotle chicken burgers, vodka marinara, pinot grigio

Ah, my fatheads. Summer. Need we say more? It is one of those wonderful words which apparently means, wonderfully, only itself. "From the Middle English sumer and the Old English sumor, akin to the Greek sommer and the Indo European base sem-, meaning summertime; whence Sanskrit sama, half year, season." Since we at Pluot like culinary things, we will mention that the word cinnamon also leaps to mind as the same type of word. Derive it how you will, it means only itself: "from the Hebrew qinnamon, cinnamon."

Somer is the time for us to cook something very easy for dinner, and to drink a refreshing and surprisingly assertive pinot grigio to accompany our meal. We say surprisingly assertive because we have long since described the pinot grigio (aping Winston Churchill's dismissal of some tepid politician), as "not a grape to go tiger-shooting with." This one at least did well beside a grilled chicken burger. Graffigna Reserve pinot grigio, 2012.

The chicken burgers are very easy to prepare. In a large bowl, combine: 2 pounds ground chicken, about a half teaspoon dried thyme, a half teaspoon dried tarragon -- more of these to taste, if you like, or any different herbs you like -- salt and pepper to taste also, and about a half teaspoon chipotle chili pepper. We picked this up in the spice aisle at the grocery store because we finally ran out of that delicious merquen, or Chilean smoked chili pepper flakes.

Combine the meat and spices thoroughly, and shape all into 8 patties. Brush them with olive oil. Let them rest on a plate while you ready your charcoal grill, using that divine chimney starter which is so convenient and such a saving of briquettes, and which obviates the need for lighter fluid. 

When the coals are hot, dump them carefully into your grill, place the rack over them, and lay on your chicken burgers, arranging them nicely over the evenly piled coals. Place the lid over the grill, with the vents on the lid slightly open. Check your burgers in about ten to fifteen minutes, after which time they should have baked through. All that remains is for you to flip them over and let them sear to golden brown, since now you will leave the lid off and allow the flames to leap up a little.

In the meantime, you can put together a vodka-tomato sauce, following the recipe in The La Bonne Soupe Cookbook (Jean-Paul Picot and Doris Tobias, 1997), or you can open a jar of Mezzeta's "Napa Valley Bistro" Creamy Vodka Marinara Sauce, which if you do that, I won't tell a soul.

From whence-ever you derive your vodka-tomato sauce, you will have it simmering gently just for ten minutes or so while your burgers finish on the grill, and then you will bring them in and slip them into the bubbling sauce. Once everything is heated through and smothered and juicy, you may dish up. Serve your burgers open faced, with toasted buns and a salad, or over rice or noodles with perhaps a side of some zucchini or mushrooms you have slathered in olive oil and grilled over the dying coals. Pour the pinot grigio.

And lastly for the purists among you, here is the recipe for Penne à la Vodka, Pasta Quills with Vodka Sauce, from La Bonne Soupe. It takes about half an hour to make. Experienced cooks may enjoy streamlining this to suit their own convenience, simply noting that the four necessary ingredients are tomato, vodka, cream, and herbs. Since in the middle of the recipe we all find out that we are required to have a cup of tomato sauce already on hand, I grant everyone the dispensation of being allowed to open a can of stewed tomatoes to stand in for the pre-prep "sauce."

La Bonne Soupe's Penne à la Vodka

2 Tbsp. olive oil
4 cloves garlic, diced
3 cups plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, chopped
1/2 cup vodka
1 cup tomato sauce
1/3 cup chopped fresh basil or 1/2 teaspoon dried
1 cup heavy cream
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

 Heat the oil in a 2 quart heavy pot. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until softened but not browned, about 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring, until they have softened, about 5 minutes. Add the vodka, raise the heat, and cook until the vodka is absorbed, about 10 minutes. Reduce the heat and add the tomato sauce, basil, cream, and salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until everything is reduced to 3 cups, about 12 minutes. Remove from heat and serve ladled over pasta.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

New cocktail -- the Michigan Sky

It's a simple affair. Muddle a small handful of blueberries (Michigan blueberries, of course) in the bottom of a highball glass, then mix the juice of half a lemon, a dash of sugar or sugar syrup (half a teaspoon, no more), and a jigger of rum in a separate mixing glass. Stir with ice, then strain over the muddled blueberries in the first glass. Stir this up and serve, perhaps garnished with a floating fresh blueberry or two. Here at Pluot we like our cocktails very pure, with no carbonated beverages added -- unless it might be champagne -- no shaking in an ice-filled shaker to anaesthetize flavor, and certainly no ice added afterward, to melt and dilute the spirit.

We name this one after the blue of the berry and the blue of the Michigan sky. Do rum and blueberries go together? Why not, if rum is what you packed in your suitcase for your little trip? 

Cheers. I'm thinking I might redecorate my office in the style of the palace at ancient Knossos. Remember those frescoes pictured in your college art history textbooks, showing very pleased-looking griffons relaxing among tall waving lilies, blue dolphins cavorting in white tile seas, happy side-view (Egyptian style) people fishing or diving or carrying jars, and the black-haired lass with the enormous eyes called "La Parisienne"? Wouldn't that be nice to look at, to enter into every day? I don't know what put the idea of Knossos into my head; maybe it came from reading Peter Green's The Laughter of Aphrodite (1965) on the pontoon. Anyway I came home thinking this place needs furbishing up and what better start to make than with the simple fresh colors and pure lines abundant in the decor of King Minos' palace? I could even name the house Knossos. My fatheads know I like the fancy of naming where you live, even if where you live is most emphatically not some sort of estate.   

Ancient Crete was overrun and the civilization of the griffons destroyed, it seems, by the warlike Mycenaeans from mainland Greece sometime around the year 1400 BC. I wonder if the king at Knossos opened the ports to them, because he felt it his divine charge to fundamentally transform the nation? And all his court and most of the nobility agreed?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

My fatheads! I cannot tell you how marvelous

How marvelous it is, that is, to suddenly learn that one's favorite, one's only vacation spot is available precisely when one has taken a week's vacation from work already. Of course, one says Yes, and books the cottage. One awakens to the dawn coming up like thunder, as Kipling would say, or at any rate to the dawn coming up like a really bright light outside a cottage bedroom window. The bedroom is done in pale cream with softly flowered curtains, and has artworks and Modge-podged puzzles of swans on the walls. Look carefully out the right-hand window and you will spy the lake and the greenery beckoning.

One awakens to the water lilies floating,


and to the timeless look of that ancient summer porch. It may sound trite, but when I first revisited this place as an adult two years ago, during an election year, I thought what a pity it was that Barack Obama never had a childhood that included so basic an American experience as a week or two at a summer cottage. It would have gone far, I should hope, toward inoculating him against some of the hate. In fact I wonder how he would cope now, if some political event required him to speak as though he knew what a summer cottage was. He can't throw a baseball and he doesn't know rudimentary poker language -- remember his gaffe-threat "don't call my bluff"? I think even if he were well-buttressed by his friendly teleprompter, he couldn't help but rush to reveal the holes in his soul. Probably mispronounce bluegill. A pity.

Anyway, I think also I will have to start writing a series of mysteries, featuring the detective Robin Michigan, who solves crimes, usually murders of course, in the brutal and dog-eat-dog world of ... southwest Michigan wine and tourism country.

Let us set the scene. The detective's parents, or rather no, perhaps grandparents (tempus does fugit, you know) will have been hippies who came to Michigan in the '60s after having grown disenchanted with the rigors of law school across the great Lake, at the University of Chicago. (Maybe they had a bellyful of Bill Ayers. But no. Being hippies, they might have liked him.) They decided to rebel against society's strictures, among other ways, by changing their name from whatever you like -- Brizzolara, let's say, or Porter -- to Michigan, the name of their adopted state. Robin was named for her mother Mudgeon's favorite bird. Ah, but was Robin a boy or a girl? Is the detective a man or a woman? Could we attempt to leave the reader always guessing? That might be a good "hook" for our series, provided we don't slip and start using pronouns right away. Be it known we want nothing to do with any LGBT nonsense, although I may have pre-killed any chances for publication in the lefty-wefty book industry simply by asserting so. 

Now, what crimes can we expect Detective Robin Michigan to be faced with, in bucolic, blueberry-strewn Van Buren and Allegan counties? I seem to see (as Lucia would say dreamily) possibilities in that gorgeous yacht slowly prowling up the Black River into South Haven on a soaring blue summer day. It's the white one, with the elegant broad black strip along its side, discreetly masking its lower deck windows. Perhaps it is piloted by a winery tycoon pulling into his berth to investigate malfeasance in the account books. Or, what about the big discount store just off I-196, amid the hotels and the gas stations? I seem to see a stock clerk pulling an empty pallet back to the receiving dock, and discovering the body of the much-loathed store manager lying facedown, who had been alive and well and holding court five minutes before. Then there are possibilities in the little shacks and trailers all around the inland lakes, Saddle Lake and Little Bear and Clear and Magician, any one of which could be meth labs and all of which look like they are. Or, perhaps a famed horticulturalist could discover an entirely new species of orchid on a hike in the woods, and then when she got back to her cottage she might find all her specimens had been stolen except that one. Incidentally, below please find not an orchid but, I think, a Turk's cap lily.  

So you see, my fatheads, it is all too marvelous. Look what a few days' relaxing will do for the brain. And, one hopes, for the soul.  

Oh by the way. The wine is good, too. 2013 Fenn Valley "Cabaret Rosé." Retail, about $13.

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