Thursday, September 28, 2006

Book Club Food: The Year of Magical Thinking 

A quick summary:

The Year of Magical Thinking begins moments before the sudden death of John Dunne, Joan Didion's husband, and she takes the readers through her year of grief, self-analysis, and adjustment, all the while following her adult daughter Quintana in and out of hospitals as she fights a series of serious illnesses. Ever analytical, Didion delves into medical studies, psychology theories, and literary accounts, all on the topic of grief, in an effort to understand her inner and outer state.

Yet even at her most philosophical, she veers into memory "vortexes" to a time when John and Joan were young, when Quintana was little, when things were better and there was time left to live. In her belief that she could have saved him, that he will walk in the door at any moment, she counts back time, at first from the death pronouncement, then a few days, then weeks, then years, finally realizing that not only was he gone the second she found him, but that he had expected it for years, anticipating it even days before.

The book leaves her stepping into the second stage of grief, and in that way seems unresolved, a feeling that does not always sit well with readers but is an obvious conclusion to those who have dealt with such an intimate loss. So much of the book focuses on their past, their vacations and houses, it seems more revealing of their marriage and friendship, rather than her grief itself. She dreamily relates their times together, leaving you with quite an admiration of John and the successful relationship between two writers.

The options:

Food is mentioned quite prevalently throughout the book. Between their restaurants, family meals, parties, holidays, and weddings, I amassed quite a list. I might have missed a few things, but here is every item I found....

Food in The Year of Magical Thinking
(I also include drinks.)

Tossed salad
Shrimp Quesadillas
Chicken with Black Beans
Endive salad
Scallion and Ginger Congee
Watercress Sandwiches
Wedding Cake
Creme Caramel
Huevos Ranceros
Lettuce vinagrette

The menu:

Penne with Vodka Sauce
Scallion and Ginger Congee*
Tossed salad*
Italian bread
Creme Caramel*

The recipes:

Scallion & Ginger Congee
1 cup rice
8 cups water
2 scallions, diced
2 tablespoons diced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon concentrated chicken stock
3 tablespoons mirin

In a large pot, bring the water and rice to a boil, reduce to medium. Keep boiling for 30 minutes. Stir in the chicken stock to add flavor, reduce to simmer and cover. Continue simmering for another 30 minutes.

In a small pan, sautee the scallions and ginger in 2 tablespoons of the mirin until the scallions are clear and ginger softens a bit (a few minutes). Add the mixture into the rice along with the final tablespoon of mirin. If the porridge is too thick for you, you can add water to suit.

Note: I couldn't find an exact recipe for this, so I created one based on reading several congee recipes. Congee is simply this: rice porridge. Whatever you add to it is your own flair. It is recommended for those who are sick or have weak constitutions in its blandest state, but it can also be a base for stir fry.

Creme Caramel
3 cups heavy cream
1.5 tablespoons vanilla (or 1 bean)
1/2 cups sugar
1 envelope Knox gelatin

Mixing the cream, vanilla, and sugar in a pan, bring slowly to a simmer on medium. Stir constantly as cream easily burns. Remove from heat and stir in gelatin. In six individual small bowls or ramekins, drizzle enough honey to cover the bottom. Spoon in mixture, cover, and refrigerate for several hours. To serve, dip the bottom of the bowl in hot water and run a knife around the top edges to loosen from sides. Flip quickly onto a plate and tap until it releases. Drizzle with more honey if desired and garnish with fresh fruit.

Note: It might sound fancy and unfamiliar, but it's better known to us in its Spanish incarnation as flan. She mentions torching the top, which would make it creme brulee rather than caramel. Brulee is typically not presented standing on its own, while caramel is, and has slightly different consistency. Also, I found that what people hate most about flan is not its creamy, gelatinous texture as you might assume, but the egginess. Knowing that, I chose a purely whole cream recipe. I can't imagine the calorie count is worse than a recipe with 4 eggs, and these are served individually. Even with my explaining the recipe, the group couldn't get over it not tasting like eggs! Finally, I put about 5/8ths an envelope of gelatin in the mix, based on a related recipe, but it did not quite hold together well enough, so I would recommend using the entire envelope.

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