Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Tops for 2007

Every year, my friend Jonathan solicits top tens from his friends for the previous year. I usually don't have ten tops, but I send in what I can. This year, I sent in the following:

This chewy, high-protein meat substitute is made of wheat gluten and
water, kneaded and cooked to a sometimes eerily meat-like texture.
Flavorless unless you spice it, it's a great medium for tasty sauces
and the like, as it soaks up pretty much whatever you cook it in. If
you've had "mock duck" at a Rasta/Chinese vegetarian restaurant,
you've probably had seitan.

Here's the crazy part: you can make your OWN seitan. At HOME.
Granted, I've tried five different recipes and have yet to produce
anything remotely as delicious as the seitan at Blossom (a beloved
and noteworthy vegan restaurant in Chelsea -- take your hot vegan
date there and prepare to get lucky). But I have faith that with
enough experimentation I will no longer have to rely on the
obnoxiously overpriced pre-made seitan in the little blue box in the
"health food freaks" section of the refrigerator room at the 125-
street Fairway.

Another Fairway-related discovery. A few months ago my spouse and I
picked up a three-pound block of fancy bulk bittersweet chocolate in
the wholesale section of Fairway. Ever since then, we've been shaving
off chunks of that block every morning for our daily hot chocolate.
This is the best hot chocolate I've ever had, and I don't say that

The recipe to serve two: Melt about six tablespoons of chocolate over
a very low heat in a saucepan, and nuke two mugs of soy or rice milk
(or one of each, which is what I do, or cow milk if that's your
thing) until they're warm-to-hot. Then spoon in about three
tablespoons of the milk over the melted hot chocolate and whisk very
gently until the milk is entirely incorporated and the chocolate
starts thickening back into a paste. Spoon in another three
tablespoons and repeat. Once you've got a smooth, thick-but-liquid
mixture (probably using about two thirds of the first cup), dump all
the remaining milk in from both mugs and continue stirring over a low
flame for a minute or so. Tilt the saucepan to one side and the other
to make sure there's no unincorporated chocolate clinging to the
bottom or sides. If you use good chocolate, you're ready to go. If
you use boring chocolate, I recommend: a glug of vanilla, a pinch of
ancho chili powder, and a very generous pinch of cinnamon.

The mystery of this labor-intensive process is that it results in a
perfectly integrated matrix of chocolate and milk. If you melt the
chocolate into the hot milk, you get this mildly granular texture
unless you have lecithin on hand for emulsifying. But then the
lecithin can give it an excessively thick / viscous texture. I also
prefer it to dutch-processed cocoa powder and various associated dry
mixes, as it yields a richer cup, without that slight powder mouth-
feel. Oh, God, I sound like a vegan hipster foodie. Which, maybe, I am?


The pleasure of correspondence through "snail mail" really hit home
this year when I found myself a pen-pal -- a friend who moved to
France. There's something so lovely and ceremonial and old-fashioned
and deliberate about getting out the stationery box, deciding which
card I want to use, uncapping the pen, writing a little letter (it
almost doesn't matter what you say in it), sealing it up, and sending
it on its way. It says something about how profoundly email has
changed things that this activity has already become nearly an
anachronism; a novelty. But that just makes me enjoy it more. I
imagine Obi-Wan Kenobi handing me a pen and saying "Not as clumsy or
as random as a keyboard, but an elegant weapon for a more civilized
age." And then I feel deeply, deeply embarrassed at myself.


Despite some plot and pacing problems and the inescapable crappy
voice casting that Pixar seems incapable of avoiding (I wonder if
there's someone high up there who's convinced that a movie can't
succeed if the main character doesn't have the most gratingly middle-
american accent/tone possible), this 2007 animated film about a rat
who becomes a great chef has supplanted MONSTERS, INC. as my favorite
film from Pixar -- no mean feat. There are a number of moments that
pack way more punch (I first typed "pack way more lunch" -- Freudian
typo for food writing!) than you'd ever expect from an essentially
light-hearted children's film. There's also the remarkable treatment
of the writhing, teeming horde of rats that make up Remy's (the main
character) clan. The filmmakers don't shy away from the powerful
feeling of revulsion that the sight of one hundred rats in a room
creates in pretty much anyone, but in the end they do redeem that
horde -- to convert it from a vehicle of grossness and filth to a
coordinated army of tiny chefs saving the day.


When I'm feeling down about my current employment, I like to imagine
getting a job writing copy for the Crate and Barrel catalog.

Here's a randomly selected example of copy from the catalog, about
the Garrett Bed: "Classic arts and crafts styling for your inner
sanctum. Artisan-crafted in Vermont with a solid and stylish
architectural appeal, Garrett's paneled headboard and footboard are
clad in solid maple and maple veneer with a rich, randomly distressed
chestnut stain that allows the beauty of the wood's grain to shine

Good, right? And just silly enough ("inner sanctum," heh) to be
entertaining. They always have good copy, and something about the
look of their sets and the style of their products speaks to the
traitor deep inside me who has fantasies about living in a big house
in Connecticut with four bedrooms and a new kitchen with a Viking
stove. There's a big maple tree in the front yard and piles of leaves
in the fall that my perfect five-and-seven-year-old children will
throw themselves into while I lean in the front door, slim and
coiffed, wearing a chunky sweater and brown slacks, watching them
with a contented smile and sipping a cup of decaf coffee.


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