Archive for the ‘Domestic Training’ Category

A Little Bit of TinyScheme, a Lot of Cozonac

Monday, November 25th, 2019

There are few things as quintessentially Romanian, to my mind, as cozonac; the golden, nut-swirled, babka-like pastry dolled up and drummed out into the daylight for the two major Eastern Orthodox holidays. Then again, I'm not even so sure it's actually Romanian. Cozonac's one of those things that most states in the region boast as being their own, right up there with moussaka, smoked eggplant salad, goulash, and stuffed cabbage rolls. The diacritics and thus pronunciations may change, but not much else does. I guess it's proper, then, to introduce cozonac as an Eastern European thing, and to point out its specific spelling is Romanian.

Now that we've gotten there, we can promptly throw out a good half of what Romanians, and Eastern Europeans at large for that matter, think they know about cozonac. There are two main problems: the first's that folks don't put nearly as much of the awesome chocolate-walnut filling in their loaves of cozonac as they ought to1, and the second's that they put way, way, WAY too much sugar in it. A fairly common artifact of modern processed diets, the whole "dessert means heaps of sugar laced with occasional other ingredients" fanaticism is a hoary old positive feedback loop.

Thus armed with spite and sparseness, we can proceed to actually make some of this stuff. Except that I wanted to try out Mircea Popescu's image processor for blog articles, and also jfw's version of the same. Except! It turns out the box I'm using for publishing doesn't have Image Magick, required for both tools. An' I'm not happy about installing things --at all, much less things I don't know much about to "just get it to work". I do have Gimp, though, which was what I'd been using to process my pictures manually. And! It turns out Gimp uses TinyScheme, which wouldn't be a total waste of time to muck in a little as it's an interpreter of a dialect of Lisp, and maybe not too many layers removed from relevancy to learning to use some tools likely to survive the Republic's reckoning, thereby.

The following gets saved as batch-scaler.scm, to be placed in the ~/.gimp2/scripts directory:

(define (batch-scaler pattern
			new-width
			new-height)
	(let* ((filelist (cadr (file-glob pattern 1))))
		(while (not (null? filelist))
			(let* ((filename (car filelist))
				(image (car (gimp-file-load RUN-NONINTERACTIVE
								filename filename)))
				(drawable (car (gimp-image-get-active-layer image))))
			(gimp-image-scale image new-width new-height)
			(gimp-file-save RUN-NONINTERACTIVE image drawable filename filename)
			(gimp-image-delete image))
		(set! filelist (cdr filelist)))))

Note that I've put extraneous spaces between all multiple parentheses; you'll have to take these out. If someone has a better idea for preventing MPWP's cannonical footnote plugin from interpreting lisp parentheses as footnotes, please write in. The very MP in question has a fix for this in the comments, works splendidly.

Running it goes like so, from the directory where your selected but otherwise raw pictures are:

gimp -i -b '(batch-scaler "*.JPG" 1024 638)' -b '(gimp-quit 0)'

I scale my images when I re-size them, so I grabbed gimp-image-scale from the "Script-Fu Procedure Browser" and worked it into a batch processor, which goes through a glob of files according to the pattern given when running it (as long as the glob isn't empty) and then without loading the Gimp GUI, loads the pictures themselves, selects the drawable part, scales them according to whatever's set when running, saves them, and deletes the originals.

Some important problems: this only works for landscape-oriented images; you could pick out portraits, put them in a different folder and run this on them with different size parameters, but that's not so efficient. If I figure it out, I'll update this article, otherwise if anyone would care to modify this, please do. Ideally the width should be set to 1024 while preserving the aspect ratio, rather than manually specifying the length, too, regardless of orientation. Another thing to consider is that this creates one set of images, not a display size and larger size pair as in MP's process. Further, this just overwrites the images and saves them as such; the file-jpeg-save function takes fourteen, FOURTEEN, parameters, and I really can't be assed. So once the above is done,

ls -v | cat -n | while read n f; do mv -n "$f" "cozo-$n.jpg"; done

Then you can proceed to upload them as normal.

Anyway, I was saying: let's make cozonac. The instructions below are for two loaves, because who does this laborious stuff one output item at a time?!

First comes the filling. I typically make the filling the night before as it needs to cool completely before being used, otherwise it'll make steam pockets in the dough and fuck up the whole thing. Grind about a half kilogram of walnuts3 and add them to a saucepan in which you've dissolved about a tablespoon of brown sugar into 150ml or so of milk over low heat. Keep stirring; you want a paste-like consistency, for which reason you may use a little more or a little less milk. After it's thickened admirably, stir in a little rum.

cozo-1

And five or six tablespoons of unsweetened dark cocoa. Zest an orange or three and stir in the zest, too. Your mixture should be fairly thick, and very nicely scented. Set it aside, or put it in the fridge if you're saving the rest 'til tomorrow.

cozo-2

For the dough, melt 150 or so grams of butter into another 150ml or so of milk. Dump two more tablespoons of brown sugar in there, and once everything's dissolved and incorporated take it off the heat and zest two oranges and a lemon into it, and add some vanilla; either scrape the seeds into it or steep a pod in the milk while it heats, or better yet, do both.

cozo-3

Also while you're waiting for the temperature to drop, get something like 2/3rds of a kilogram of bread flour into a big bowl, add a pinch of salt, a teaspoon each of cinnamon and nutmeg, a handful or so of the best raisins you can find, and plenty --that's around 6 grams-- of dry yeast, and distribute it all evenly.4

cozo-4

Once this concoction's cool enough to touch but still warm, break three eggs into it and stir.

cozo-5

Now dump the wet stuff into the dry stuff, and knead it until it's pliable and doesn't stick to your hands too much. You might need to add a little more flour; not too much though, or your dough will be too tough. Once you're done kneading form the dough into a ball and let it rest in a warm kitchen under a slightly damp towel.

cozo-6

If your kitchen is cold, heat your oven for a few minutes, then turn it off and put the bowl in there. Leaving dough to rise in a cold place is begging for disappointment.

cozo-7

Once your dough has doubled, which should take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half or so, prepare a workspace for rolling. Your filling should be room temperature, either because you've let it cool for several hours or you've taken it out of the fridge a few hours before --note that very cold filling is no good here, as it'll cool the dough for its second rise and you'll be stuck waiting f o r e v e r to get your loaves in the oven.

cozo-8

Oil your countertop/foil-lined table/friend's back/whatever surface, and do the same with your rolling pin/wine bottle. Generously butter two loaf pans and sprinkle them with flour.

Divide your dough into quarters. For each loaf, roll out first one quarter and then the other into rectangles, until they're quite thin but not too thin to pick up. Spread each with a quarter of your filling, leaving small margins at the edges.

cozo-9

Roll these up lengthwise, then twist them together to make a floppy, unwieldy helix; immediately plonk them into the loaf pans before they get any unwieldier.

cozo-10

Brush them with an egg yolk beaten with a bit of milk, and let them rise another hour or two, until they've started to threaten the edges of the pans. Then bake at 200C, preheated if you're stuck with an electric oven, for just about an hour. After fifteen minutes or so in the oven, lightly cover the loaves with aluminum foil to keep the tops from burning.

cozo-11

Let them cool for a few minutes after taking them out, then remove them from the pans and cool them completely, resting on their sides, and switching sides occasionally. There's a delicate juxtaposition of dense chocolaty nuts and light, puffy dough inside --it has to cool down gently and evenly, hence all the elaborate dancing.

cozo-12

Once they're cool, slice and enjoy. Cozonac also freezes very well, and can even be eaten as frozonac, for the adventurous. All in all this is a rather heathen recipe, unlikely to be approved of by most Romanian cooks, who tend towards the strict and unexaminedly-traditional side. It is however highly praised by those whose opinions I actually care about, and owes something to the instruction of Ellie, whose basic discussion of procedure managed to somehow break through very heavy Hallmark-isms, Jesus worship, cups and cups of sugar, and other incompatibles to teach me something.

  1. "Ought to" maps, of course, to as much as MP would like, here. []
  2. I'm using 2.8, fwiw. []
  3. You can also add some measure of pecans, almonds, pistachios, or macadamias, though walnuts are the traditional, and really the best for this recipe. []
  4. You can also use fresh yeast, which imparts a pleasant flavor for those with a taste for it. It'll also cause your dough to rise a little faster, which isn't a bad thing. To do this, mix eight to ten grams of crumbled fresh yeast into the warm milk mixture after you mix in the eggs, which are coming. []

The Right Thing

Sunday, November 3rd, 2019

The right thing fuzzes into being for most people sometime during childhood through some episode or other of a previously unperceived wrong going punished, and describing the right by its difference. Later in adolescence the struggle for the right thing often enough leads to blood and blows, or maybe experimentation with drugs, or running away from home, or what have you. The right thing rules life complete for the adult (not that all that many people mature into adulthood). There's no period of life aside from natality, and no state aside from sloth, exempt from the right thing's dominion --making awareness of the same an arguably decent prerequisite for being actually alive, or human, if you like.

Any familiarity with the Republic makes one likely to load a particular meaning for the right thing; the variety speak points to Republican separation from pretenders who came before, and who (fail to) coexist now, accepting to make their wine with some percentage of shit, to compromise integrity for convenience, and to stand behind nothing but a false-toothed grin. The right thing has often enough been summoned in discussion when ironing out the particularities of a piece of software or the branches and leaves of a system, but its practical and present use in no way cordons it off from its true scope, which is: everything.

Everything, terrifying as that may be. There is always a right thing, though it may not always be known or even approachable. What is anxiety, after all, other than the experience of a human mind confronting the uncaring vastness of the possibility of correct and incorrect? What is philosophy, other than the attempt to codify correct and incorrect, whether from the understanding of the universe, or of man within it, or of god above it, or whatever other angle?

And yet it's not merely the vastness of the right thing that lends to its horror; it is its separateness from us, its objectivity, that makes for who knows how many sleepless nights spent on this spinning globe. The right thing has no connection to what you'd prefer to be the right thing. No influence, no possibility of meaningful exchange, nothing. Neither is it subject to your conceptions, conscious or not, of what could possibly be the right thing, or whether or not you'd be capable of doing or even choosing it. It does not love you. It will never even know your name. Love of the right thing is the quintissential unrequited love; there's just nothing there.

But you love it anyway, because that's who you are --good for you. You're now welcome to spend every waking moment obsessing over which of the paths before you are right, from when and how and why to brush your teeth to which and whether and why not way to climb the stairs and so on and so forth. You're welcome to waste your life (can it be wasted on the right thing? better figure that out before the next question comes!) spending every moment looking for possibilities and choosing amongst them meaningfully and with confidence. Inasmuch as the potential rate of personally experienced phenomena is quite a great deal faster than your fly-brain moving through real time, you're in fact welcome to inevitably fail. Aww. And all you wanted was to do a good job, wasn't it?

A great secret of life, or perhaps it's not a secret and that's merely my personal collection of inadequacies fronting for the past lack of its obviousness to me, is that pretty much everything comes with, and is best described in terms of, two or more data points. You know, you bought fifty litres of gas, and gas is four euros a litre, the sort of details that allow you to get through the practical movements of life with some sense of what you're doing, and why, and how. Living with a solitary data point is the culprit of most states of ignorance and indigence. The same holds true for the right thing, conceptually; it's not just about whether a given thing is the correct one. It's also about whether it matters.

Holy shit, twenty-year old me is ranting furiously in the corner, tearing up bits of the phone book and frothing at the mouth, "what do you mean WHETHER it matters?! It always matters, what the fuck, just that question belies total traitorhood omfg where's the Captain Morgan?!"

For most of my post-pubescent life I held that the most important, sometimes the only important thing, was to always do the right thing. I also held that this wasn't actually possible, but the key benefit of time has been the realization that this impossibility is inherent in the system, and it is not a fundamental flaw of humanity that it cannot physically keep up. Rather, most people lack a way to determine when the right thing matters, and when it doesn't, so much; and manifest in either slovenly stupidity on one end of the spectrum or manic insanity on the other, most people fail at obtaining this second data point.

I'll dare to say now what I've been suspecting for a while, and what would've frightened me ideologically not even so long ago: those that fail at obtaining this second data point, and therefore at doing the right thing appreciably, have fairly clean crossover with those who fail to understand the role of management (or sovereignty, or whatever other mask you care to put on it). Because this is what management is for: to observe your struggle with doing the right thing, and to determine where you're faltering in applying your dedication to it. As a fanatic, you're naturally inclined to find management's determinations arbitrary and punitive. The true task before you is to decide, and to necessarily stand by your decision, as to whether or not the management available to you is sane1. If you're lucky, both the truth of the matter and your determination will be positive. If you're unlucky, one or both will come out with a dull thud.

Ideally, management should need only speak to you its findings to affect your course. Naturally, such smoothness is incredibly rare. How much of historical conflict is the result of the professedly managed needing more than a word to adapt to the determinations of the management? Other than particularities of the "professions" therein, it's necessarily one hundred percent.

I'm not entirely sure where to end here except to state that taking on the burden of both data points is an Atlassian task to which the vast, vast majority of people born on this planet will never be equal. The prayers, the wailings in the night, the starved children, the mangled, stray dogs, the incredible potential of sadness and ruin is but testament to the natural inadequacy of most to provide themselves, and their rings of people, with both data points. There's nothing bad or good about this; it's just the way it is, but I'd hope demonstrably so, for anyone who's had a look around. Be fucking humble, and keep your wits about you, when you encounter those who've assumed such terrible responsibility. The latter, because a great portion of even these will be bad; and the former, because there's nothing worthier of your time and your blood than those who are great.

  1. Yes, this means at some point T before the shit's hitting the fans so fast you're not advised to "decide" much of anything, just keep mopping. And yes, you are held to verify this decision now and again, as a regular part of your self-hygiene --but as a regular part, not as a reaction to managerial determinations you don't like. []

Blistering Choice

Friday, May 10th, 2019

The very thought of the development of the specific psychopathies over time is enough to make me sick. Imagine the movement through a lifetime of a worm, acquiring in slow succession now antennae, now carbuncles, now splotches and hairs, complicated feet and feet for the feet themselves, ever multiplying in sickening mathematical complexity until there's nothing in particular that can be focused upon. All you can do as an observer is zoom in or zoom out, and every movement is edged in razors.

At first it was a sweet dream. There was something so simple, so round, about the correctness of things, about the possibility even of correctness. Only being able to imagine that there was some difference between paths, that there was meaning in action just as there was meaning in inaction, was revolutionary. It was the answer to all problems, and the light in all tunnels.

But there is no choice as to scope or context. For loving what is right you are not able to prefer it sometimes, or in some places. There is only where it leads you, of its own accord, by some laws you'll never know, by some laws that cannot be known. There is no guarantee that the entirety of life will be spent any other way than being compelled to love the correctness of the clutching of a sponge. And in truth, why should it really be any different? Whether something is large or small, simple or complex, whether it takes a great deal to comprehend or even see it or it appears as though a speck, a blip on the map of an existence, what does it matter to someone devoted to the thing itself?

And yet it can. And yet it can, terribly. It can matter to the extent that nothing else does, and the correct sponge holding becomes as a hateful fact, a thing utterly loathed and dreadful to think about, idol and paragon of everything wrong and unhappy. The silence and space around small things is too much to stomach, too much to mouth, even. It encroaches and grows and mocks, leaving the observer stultified and saddened, without material for anything at all. With no material, themselves, in or out. A shell, if you could call it that, for there's not all that much defining the borders after a while. Just a sort of gas that moves around, maybe, for unclear reasons, and to unclear ends.

You do not get to choose. The shape of what a dream looks like is a trap inasmuch as it contains any detail. The slightest detail at all is a lie, is a shackle waiting to ensnare the dreamer somewhere along the way, killing both their movement through the dream and their ability to wake up. Why should precision be quite so deadly? Supposedly specificity is a great boon, is a prime tool towards the development or manifestation of anything, anything at all. And yet, what can really be manifested in the presence of specificity? Only the hollow, aching death of the thing that was actually planned for.

Not knowing isn't better. Not caring is the only thing. But why would one dream if one didn't care? What's to dream about if you care about nothing? To dream of nothing itself, maybe, like a monk. Like a monk who sits, a dipole in the atmosphere, producing nothing.

It is in the network of rot of all of this that the insects appear, all fat, horribly articulated bellies and iridescent wings. What better place for such creatures to infest than a tangled nest of grief and contradiction. What experience, exactly, is one supposed to have from within an itching mess that can't be seen out of? The experience of prurience with blindness, the constant removal of one's own skin, the constant irritation to grow more calluses where the old ones were painfully scratched away.

Wellington Schmellington

Friday, October 27th, 2017

Pork Wellington is a dish created by a certain gourmand and which I especially appreciate for its competent obfuscation of that off-copper, sub-glottal twinge that typically assaults one attempting to finish their liver1. It's pretty much a roast-in-crust, with the more common beef tenderloin swapped out for pork, and the pate made with chicken rather than goose liver, which is also deeply spiced.

Make the pastry first so it can sit in the fridge while everything else gets going. Follow a basic pate brisee method, but sift in some baking powder before you cut in the butter. Smoosh it into a disk and let it chill so it's easier to roll later.

wellington-1

Next make the pate. Dump about a kilo of fresh chicken liver into a big pot of boiling water and get ready to lose some of your enthusiasm about eating this thing later on (don't worry, it'll come back). Sorting through your livers to discard any gallbladders that might've gotten in there before this point is a good idea. A few drops of whatever vinegar you have on hand will help tame the smell and aid coagulation in the pot.

wellington-2

Keep it roiling for half an hour, then drain the stuff and dump it into a bowl with your spice mixture, which should contain around ten grams of allspice berries with black and white peppercorns to taste, finely ground. Mash these up with a fork, adding a pat of butter now and then to achieve a thick, clumpy velvet sort of texture. Remove any whitish membrane threads you find during this procedure. Once you're happy with the texture, add a few spoonfulls of fermented dairy --I used plain yogurt and some splashes of kefir, though sour cream would also work. This'll make the pate easily spreadable, a paste rather than a stucco.

wellington-3

Now it's time to sear your steak; heat a pan to suparhot with some butter, and brown the tenderloin on all sides, giving the whole thing no more than two minutes or so, then transfer it to a plate to cut the heat.

wellington-4

Your components now prepared, you can proceed to roll out the dough; try to make a shape that more or less echoes that of the tenderloin. Spread about half of the pate on the dough, leaving a goodly margin as below, then plop the seared tenderloin on top. Slather on the rest of the pate2. At this point you'd typically spangle the log3 with sliced mushrooms, but I opted to make a bechamel of dried porcinis instead. A sprinkling of fresh thyme leaves works well, too.

wellington-5

Anyway, wrap the thing up like any other package, taking care not to get much of any overlap of the dough, else it'll end up too thick in places. Seal on top or along the sides, brush with an eggwash, slash a few holes, and stick it in the oven around 190C for about 50 minutes.

wellington-6

Pork Wellington is best eaten with his dearest friends in tow: Sir Worchestershire, Herr Rottkohl, and Madamme Bordeaux.

  1. As part of some grand cosmic joke I'm not in on, the only working remedy for my interminable affair with anemia is weekly consumption of ~half a kilo of chicken liver, which I initally found abhorrent and by now swallow with only somewhat of a frown. []
  2. Depending on the "about" of your kilo of liver and the size of your tenderloin, you might end up with too much pate --you don't want to go thicker than about a third of an inch. If you end up with extra, put it in a glass jar in the fridge and enjoy with tomorrow's toast or whatever, tell your sister you've discovered a fabulous "hair masque" she just has to try. []
  3. Masturbatory euphemism not intended. []

If at first you don't succeed, scoop it into the garbage and ask how many cups of stupid you threw in there.

Friday, September 26th, 2014

I made a failed cake yesterday. I loathe few things more than failed foodstuffs, but like most anything, they require a bit of failure now and then to season a person into sanity. It was a pineapple upside-down cake, and while a specific procedural error led to the failure, the real cause of the soupy, inedible (but still quite deliciously fragrant, because fuck me) disaster that flowed out of my pan was a momentary preference for not thinking.

In general I don't use recipes when cooking, though only yesterday did I really understand why. Inasmuch as a recipe presents itself as a complete set of instructions and a material rider, it offers a replacement for thinking, if you're prone to succumbing to that sort of thing. So a recipe for pineapple upside-down cake that calls for fresh fruit and doesn't mention the need to wring the juice from the cut pieces nor to evaporate extra juice with a long, slow, caramel-covered sauna over low flame is a recipe for sludge --similar to the substance occupying the space between your ears as you mindlessly list-check and step yourself along.

Here's version one, in all its abortive glory:
bad cake

The conversation upon opening the springform went something like this:

Person Promised Cake: "So...how many cups of water did you put in here?"
Me: "...water?! There's no water."
PPC: "You put some water in here. Some liquid with water in it."
Me: "Uh, well the caramel had like a tablespoon of cognac in it...the batter had around four."
PPC: "Nah, you put like a cup of water in here."

I was incredulous and combative until the virgin pineapple was finally dragged on stage. This'd be another symptom of eschewing thinking for the instructions. It didn't call for a cup of water, I didn't just randomly throw uncalled for things in, obviously I didn't put a cup, a whole cup, even, of water in there! Except I did, because the poor pineapple is simply going to do what it does without a care for what should be or what someone else assumed it'd do.

It's not that cooking can't be learned in the presence of recipes, just as it's not true that math can't be done with calculators. The problem is that relying on such things to do one's thinking for oneself is a quick ticket to amorphous mush, of whatever kind follows from the inputs. I never knew what the fuck I was doing with basic math until I stopped using calculators and did things in my head, and I only learned how to cook well when I became actively engaged in making new things, which absolutely as a first step requires thinking. Faking understanding with tools may go unpunished for a while, especially in an environment marked by mickey mouse tests and tasters and "scores" that reflect what should be rather than what is. Math, cake, or anything else, though --it'll fall apart at some point, and the more you seek to find fault with the tools rather than with yourself, the worse it'll be.

Here's version two, which landed upside down cake firmly in my repertoire:
good cake

It's a banal accomplishment in the grand scheme of things, but served as an important reminder of the wasteful stupidity of tuning out, and of the pernicious poison of poorly-chosen submission.

Soup's On

Saturday, October 13th, 2012

Today I watched a pot boil. Immature as it may sound, I nevertheless find a little piece of pleasure in checking on a pot just before it hits the boiling point, proving the old adage wrong. I suspect we grow up with too many adages, whether they're formalized or not.

The pot I watched began to bubble and stir around various herbs of its own momentum; I was making soup. I've been making soups and having a bowl almost every day for a few years now. One of the major differences between cooking and eating in the US and in Romania is that here, there's always soup on offer, and generally it's eaten before the dinner meal. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've had soup before dinner back home. When I came to Romania, the tradition seemed insignificant --soup was more like this needless and boring thing, and it took me forever to make one, not to mention that I had no real idea of what to put into a pot. Today I make them in about twenty minutes, and a pot's good for me and company for three to four days. It's splendid how a good soup fills the house with the inviting scent of herbs and vegetables. It aids digestion. It's filling enough that it gracefully encourages eating smaller meals throughout the day. And while the cost varies according to season and what exactly I'm making, that three to four day pot runs ~$4.

In many parts of the world, soup is absolutely integral; in some areas soups are served in parlors specifically for the purpose of gathering people together to have a small repast and enjoy a game of backgammon or discuss whatever ongoing concern. Soup's good if you're sick or if you're well, whether you're old and frail or young, whether you have a meager grocery budget or want to try something epicurious. It's even been suggested that the proliferation of modern restaurants has as its original raison d'ĂȘtre the provision of soups for the public. The staple's been commercialized to all hell, of course, and cans of soup take up a big piece of your given grocery store aisle now, but I think the shortcomings of processed soup were largely to blame for my disinterest in the dish before I started to make it myself. When you make your own soup, you're free to put in exactly what you want, leave out what you don't, and perhaps most importantly, avoid all the preservative, chemical crap your body certainly doesn't need.

There are a few things you absolutely need for good soup, and a variety of things that can help but which aren't totally necessary. In that first category, perhaps the most important would be a good pot. Thick-bottomed, able to hold a gallon or more, and with a securely-fitting lid, preferably vented. And then you've got to have some ingredients. But there aren't really any absolutes. It's a good idea to have a basic herb garden (as it is within the context of all cooking). I grow a couple of pots of basil, and one each of rosemary, tarragon, and mint, though depending on your taste and your light situation you might also grow some coriander, fennel, thyme, or dill. Lovage, which doesn't seem too popular in the States, is absolutely wonderful, with a slightly sweet, broadly herbal taste that incorporates notes of licorice. I tried to grow it on my balcony this year, and learned the hard way that local birds apparently think it's some sort of ambrosia. I went out one morning and found my plants completely severed at the stalks, and caught a bird hopping around now and then checking out the damage to see if there were any scraps left. Next year I'll have a proper battle plan. I round out what I grow with what's in my cupboard. Paprika (which I wish was available smoked here, but they haven't quite caught on yet despite the fact that next-door Hungary is the preeminent producer of paprika), parsley, black, white, pink, and green peppercorns, powdered ginger and rosemary, coriander seeds, cumin, fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, whole nutmeg, lemongrass, curry leaves, whole allspice, cayenne, oregano, and bay leaves make up the bulk of my stash and often find their way into soups in different teams.

Then you'll need liquids. This summer and fall I've been using plain old tap water for my soups, which is great when fresh vegetables are available at the market. In winter months, or if the goal is something particularly special, a stock is in order. I haven't yet found any prepared stocks here that are sane; there's a plethora of over-salted, hydrogenated fat-laden stocks that I won't touch, so I make my own stocks. For chicken and beef you'll need some bones, a little lean meat if you want, and some basic vegetables (carrots, a whole onion, celery root or stalks) and some bay. Simmer these in a big pot of water for a few hours, skimming off any foam on the surface, and discard the solids. For seafood, get some shellfish husks. For vegetable, follow the chicken/beef bit above but obviously omit the meat and bones. You can pour well-reduced stock into ice cube trays and freeze it, which gives you better quantity control.

By now, all you have to do is pick some core ingredients, like diced or pureed vegetables and/or bits of meat, and maybe some pasta, add your herbs and you're done. In Romania a lot of soups are heavily modified at the table, with lemon wedges, sour cream, hot peppers, and so forth. I like to eat the following soup with a splash of whole milk and a little bit of Sriracha (oh Cholula hot sauce, how I miss thee). So here's a soup I've been feasting on all summer, a welcomely sweet and herbal pause in the bitter iron-heavy diet I've slowly been phasing out as I get over some devilish anemia.

Summer Soup

Bring a pot of water to boil, and throw in sufficient salt, pink peppercorns*, paprika, turmeric, and ground fennel and fenugreek seeds. While the water heats up, peel and dice 3 - 4 carrots and a few ounces of celery root, and dump them in. Leave the pot be for a while, and in the meantime peel and chop a cup or so each of zucchini, green beans, and tomatoes. Slice a couple of green onions and chop a few basil and rosemary leaves; set these aside. After the pot has boiled for anywhere from ten minutes to an hour (depending on how done you like your vegetables and how strong you want the soup), dump all the other ingredients in and turn the heat down so it barely boils; leave this for about fifteen minutes. Sometimes I'll throw in a little fresh ravioli, which goes in with the zucchini etc.

Crusty bread drizzled with olive oil goes nicely.

*I like peppercorns floating freely in my soup, but if you don't especially enjoy the idea of biting down on a spicy bit of pale pink heaven, tie them in a cheesecloth before you drop them in.

It's Just What's Done

Sunday, April 17th, 2011

Outside of most apartment buildings in Romania, somewhere by a little garden fenced in by bits of scrap metal and sticks that might one day know the glory of being bushes if only the tenders would stop paring them down to the last branch, exists a metal frame. Three lines, like a giant staple coming out of the ground, crude and unadorned save for the occasional peeling strips of paint. For a while, I wasn't sure what these frames were for; maybe it was a bring-your-own-swing facility or a slightly confused reincarnation of monkey bars. I eventually saw one of these objects in use as a woman beat a rhythmic din into a rug thrown over the top.

An odd amenity, but an understandable one for a country so obsessed with the spirit of household chores it advertises pastel-colored irons for Easter in its newspapers. Aside from feeling somehow transported to a 1950's style domestic wholesomeness, I've come to recognize that like the proper level of over-zealous cleaning, there are many local practices that seem to be carried out not because anybody particularly enjoys it, or because there's some rational argument to be had, but because that's just what's done.

Being barefoot, to be sure, is not what's done in Romania. I've seen multiple charity sites and philanthropic calls to action insisting that the people of Romania need shoes, but I haven't yet seen a barefoot person, nor any city street that isn't littered with shoe stores. Being barefoot inside, no matter the environs, is also not what's done. People have slippers set aside in their houses for visitors. Doctors direct you to a shoe selection should you need to undress. A visitor to my own home, horrified upon seeing me barefoot, inquired as to whether the floor was heated. It doesn't matter if you're taking a stroll around the living room or moving five feet from the bath to the towel rack. I've heard the general idea is that if you expose your precious footsies to the ground, the ability to bear children is somehow snatched away, but seeing as this same rule is apparently applied to sitting on the floor or exposing one's back to the air, I'm satisfied that it's more of a superstition than a genuine belief.

I recently had a one inch nickel pipe clamp installed around my neck as a collar. Heading out to shop one spring afternoon, I wore a tank top and knee-length skirt and made my first stop at a pharmacy. The clerk looked at me in shock, but not because of the clamp. "Is it really," she wanted to know, "so warm outside you can wear that?!" Thankfully I'd had the heart to blow-dry my hair that morning, otherwise I suspect the woman would have fainted over her concern for my lack of concern about the Romanian concern over allowing one's body temperature to fall below a moderate fever. Wandering around the town, I've been asked on a few occasions by perfect strangers, mid-step, whether I'm not too cold.

Granted, some Romanian habits are rather nice and actually sensible, such as the inclination to begin meals with soup. Granted also that in the US, habits performed simply because they're what's done are by now less easily generalized and largely confined to the more abstract worlds of thought and language. Still, when I see the metal staple-frames standing proudly by their buildings as if to proclaim the decency and correctness of the dwellings they so inadequately decorate, I frown a little at the power that "it's just what's done" can exert on a landscape, beating it rhythmically into a familiar, but not especially functional, shape.