Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Vegetable Innuendo

Yeah, I know sparse blogging, etc., but man, the world's a depressing place lately, and I gotta leave the horrors of war, climate, corporate governance and Mitt Romney to people of better wit and stronger stomach than me. Instead, let me take you to a place that's really more my wheelhouse: gluttony, amusingly-shaped food, and sausage jokes. I have admitted that I love those gristly meat wands beyond their value as a perpetual straight line, and while I feel no shame in massaging that vein, I constantly find myself wishing I had a place to actually put some.  Hey, if it's impossible to leave all the girthy double entendres out of the discussion, then I say ram 'em in wherever they're allowed.

Zucchini is almost as funny as sausage, but it's not remotely as tasty. It maybe has a little more of the herbal and a little less of the soapy flavor of yellow summer squash, but that hardly makes up for its general blandness and, as I find, the very slightly gag-inducing quality it possesses, which gets even worse when you let it grow big and knobby. I really do like the stuff, but if you could concentrate whatever that essence is, it'd make a fine emetic. Unfortunately, at this time of year, zucchini moderation is not much of an option, as I manage to always find myself overrun with the stuff. Perhaps you, like me, want an easier way to choke it down. I am here to help.

And okay, I actually hate to be offering up a casserole on general principles, but this one is, at least, an exercise on how young garden vegetables are just plain better than the supermarket garbage you're stuck with for the rest of the year. I make this one on rare occasions in the winter, and it amounts to little more than the uninspired American cuisine we all regret growing up with. But we had some awesome little fennel bulbs from the CSA recently and more baby zucchinis than I could carry out on my back, and loading it up with quality veggies pretty well transformed this thing. Hell, maybe next time I'll just do it up as a ragout and serve it over some obscure starch so as to preserve what's left of my culinary dignity. Given the whole running theme here, it should clearly be ladled on top of gently simmered wheatberries. Maybe I can somehow find blue ones.

So anyway, my zucchini and sausage casserole. My favorite wine to have with this is an inexpensive New Zealand Savignon Blanc called Vavasour, and not just because of the giant cock on the bottle. (It was a delightful find on the discount rack a few years ago, and I'm giving away a guarded family secret by telling you about it.) No, this stuff has an aroma and slight flavor of pepperoncini peppers, which maybe isn't something you want every day, but it's perfect for this dish, so go out and pick up a couple of magnums already. Here's the recipe:

1 box of bowties (or your favorite casserole pasta)
olive oil
1 lb. turkey sausage (or else, you know, good sausage)
1-2 large onions, chopped
2 smallish fennel bulbs, cored and chopped
maybe 1.5 teaspoons salt
maybe a little red pepper (if you have turkey sausage, it might need even more help)
about 4 cloves garlic, minced
2-4 cups chopped zucchini
1-2 tablespoons flour
1/2 - 1 c. chicken stock (you really just want a little sauce to coat the pasta here)
about 1 c. crumbled feta cheese
about 3/4 c. sliced pepperoncinis
freshly ground black pepper
1 c. grated cheddar cheese.

Preheat the oven to 400 °F. Cook the pasta in boiling water and drain.

Heat some oil in a large skillet or pot. Remove the sausages from their casings (if that's what you got), and add them to the skillet with the onion and fennel and some salt, crumbling them as they brown. As the vegetables get soft and the meat gets cooked, add the garlic and cook for another minute, then add the zucchini and saute until it's as soft as you prefer. Mix in the flour, adding a little more oil if necessary. (The zucchini will evolve a lot of water, and I try to let it mostly evaporate off, but I can't say I've ever had a problem mixing in the flour at this point.) Whisk in the broth and simmer a minute to thicken. Then toss in pasta, feta, and pepperoncini.

Add it all to a large baking dish and top with the cheddar cheese. Bake for about 20 minutes.

What, you say you still have a monster ton of summer squash left over? Well, pickles are pretty funny too (especially gherkins!), a natural, zesty enterprise if you will, and so let's go with that.

Here's a recipe for pickled squash, I think based on a magazine article at some point or other, and it originally had green beans in there too, so add that if it floats your boat. I find it's good for about a once-a-year thing, and you can make a few pint jars and leave it in your refrigerator for awhile, serve them alongside some grilled shrimp or something, and drink heavily with whatever's on hand. Or better yet, pass them off on your friends, who will be delighted to add to their own reluctant stockpile of squash (but these aren't preserved pickles, and must be stored cold, so don't kill anyone). I think this recipe makes about 2 pint jars.

2 c. rice vinegar
2/3 c. sugar
1 tsp. salt
Several green or yellow squash, cut into spears
1-2 thinly sliced shallots
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper
black peppercorns
small handful of cilantro sprigs
about 1/2 in. ginger root, julienned

Stuff the squash spears, shallots, and whole herbs and spices passionately into a couple pint jars. Combine vinegar, sugar, and salt in a saucepan and heat until the solids dissolve. Pour the hot, wet vinegar into the jars and cover. Refrigerate for 8 hours, turning (on) occasionally.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Review: Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn

To say that the novel Eifelheim rolls together a handful of science fiction mainstays doesn't really do the book justice. Yes, there are a few going on in there: the bulk of the story is both an alien first-contact tale and a culture clash with moderns and medievals, and that, in turn, is conducted within a present-day Big Discovery sort of frame story, as two modern researchers try to piece together a best guess as to just what happened to disappear the village of Eifelheim back in 1348. But even if the pieces are recognizable, it's better than a patchwork of conventions, and this book comes together as something impressive and original, excellent both as an idea novel and as a character experiment.

The background is researched to a degree of sincerity that's impressive, but which, unfortunately, is most unwieldy at the very beginning. In chapter 2, we're introduced to a an academic couple who unwittingly find themselves working different angles of the same project. Tom is a "cliologist," a man who uses mathematical tools to study history, and while he seems like a sharp guy, he's even more bizarrely confident in his highly processed conclusions than is the average econometrician. (The doubt quotes, however, are because I can't tell if this field actually exists outside of fiction. I clearly don't possess Michael Flynn's commitment to background research.) His girlfriend Sharon is a theoretical physicist working out some implications of a higher-dimensional universe, and I can't really say how valid her conjectures are either, but that's because Flynn's physics kludges are at a pretty high level for sf, and he makes it easy to suspend my disbelief and pique curiosity about the underlying ideas. The problem with the frame story is that neither Tom nor Sharon start out as very compelling characters, and giving a gusty voice to the contemporary narrator (one of Tom's colleagues; the other sections are told in the usual third person omniscient--the author's own voice, which is better) only weighs them down more. Flynn tries to capture these two in a smart-person's lover's dialogue, but it's a bad vehicle for getting us up to speed--if there are people who talk about the high-level intellectual grounding of their work this much when they're off the clock, then I don't really want to spend any time with them. Their manner becomes more credible as they sink into their mutual obsessions, but they start off as just plain bores. It's the sort of thing that might carry the distance of certain kind of sf short (one of those purer "idea stories"), and that is in fact what the book grew from, but in a longer novel, it's not the best opening move.

And the novel is NOT a bore, not by any means. It's really engaging, and I'd rather convince you to keep reading it. Most of the story takes place in the middle ages, and with just a little faith, we're diving right into the heart of the Black Forest, with that earnestness now helping to paint things very sympathetically. Over the years, I've read a couple other novels set in a similar milieu, and I think that Flynn, at last, gets us down to the fact that we're dealing with people who are intelligent and capable on their own terms. I think more than most writers, he's really curious about their worldview more than about how they lived, going as far to claim the time of William of Ockham as a rare triumph of reason among the epochs, before better minds reverted to the romantic mysticism (as one character labels it) of the Renaissance. And while I doubt he has the accredited scholarship of Umberto Eco (and there's also no smokin' cool labyrinth, etc.), the comparison with the The Name of the Rose is too tempting. Flynn plays a very similar trick that Eco does (distilling Roger Bacon, Ockham, Buridan et al. to get a modern-style rational protagonist) with similar intentions (to dissect the middle age intellectual universe), but the author does not (as Eco so irritatingly did) treat the medievals with gigantic heaps of modern smugness. He admittedly cheats a lot with the main character, Pastor Dietrich, letting him correctly derive a lot of advanced concepts (right down to the etymology, and even though that's really a game he plays with the reader--do we usually think much about where words like "electronic" or "protein" or "microphone" come from?--it was a little too much for me) with the tools he has at hand, but Flynn has a great deal of respect for those tools, up to and including the theological ones, and the discussions of Christian morality (revealed truth to Dietrich and his flock, but one they are constantly working with as part of both their moral and natural philosophy) are as interesting as the technological ones. It ends up creating an interesting connection between their understanding and ours, and he lets Dietrich be persistently wrong about some things too, and at times lets his misunderstanding lead to profundity.

I think it works because Flynn takes two groups that are well-known strangers to the reader, common science fiction objects of scrutiny, and lets them investigate each other from mutual disadvantage. The aliens--big grasshopper-like creatures--are technologically advanced (only a couple breakthroughs past 2012 level) but seriously impaired, stranded with a broken vehicle in an unknown and possibly hostile or unsupportive environment, and with a deterioriating group dynamic. The villagers meanwhile, are as smart and inquisitive, and as charitable and suspcious, as any cross-section of human society, but when it comes to unforeseen problems like demonic visitors, even though they're in the midst of a scientific revolution of their own, are obviously inhibited by it being such an early one. They're also in sniffing distance of the Black Death, to which the reader is cued from the beginning, and slaves to a couple other known, if minor, historical events.

There are those interesting scientific and theological discussions between Dietrich and the visitors, but there's a satisfying cultural interaction to decode as well, and Flynn has a lot of space to get into both worlds. He adds some richness to medieval life (the local priest keeps a lot of contacts, and for just a little more scope, he's got an interesting backstory of his own too), and gives the aliens enough problems to get into their sometimes confusing society too. They're not quite human in the way they interact with each other, but they're fucked up in ways we can appreciate. With varying success, and with no shortage of ambiguity and difficulties, the groups interact and learn from each other (or fail to), get closer despite themselves, all for what may ultimately be no purpose at all. Their respective problems are left open. If there's a point to them meeting, it's maybe to be found hundreds of years later. It's a positive and fanciful story, well-informed, hopeful, and yet tethered to the complications of life. What more can you ask for?