16 January, 2012

Why Tamper with a Classic?

Why do people feel they can always invent a better mousetrap?  I don't want to take anything away from Steven Spielberg's Golden Globe -- I'm sure his animation was superb -- but did he have to tamper with the original?

Growing up in Belgium, Tintin (pronounced Tantan with soft "n's", not like the element) was a childhood staple.  We saved our allowances to buy the hardcover comics. My brother still has our complete collection, though 50+ years later the pages are yellowed and brittle.

Tintin actually made his debut in 1929, based on a previous character named Tortor, created by Belgian artist Hergé (the pen name of Georges Remi).   Hergé worked at a right wing newspaper and his books, while enjoyed by children, reflected his politic and views: strongly fascist at first, then tempering until he became more critical of the political far right, verging on pacifism.   King Ottokar's Sceptre took direct, if disguised, aim at both Nazi Hitler and Fascist Mussolini embodied in a despot named Müsstler.

History aside, generations of children grew up loving Tintin, his dog Milou and his friends: Captain Haddock, Dupond and Dupont, and the brilliant but ditzy Professor Tournesol. What objective did Spielberg achieve by changing Milou to Snowy, Dupond/Dupont to Thompson/Thomson, and Tournesol to Calculus?

Would he remake Gone with the Wind and rename Scarlet as Rosie?  Or Rhett as Christopher? Or - gasp - re-baptize Hercule Poirot as Henry Hunter? I think not. So why recast a legendary figure?

Not that Spielberg cares, but I'm boycotting the movie on principle...and because I don't think I can sit through 2 hours of listening to the hero's name being mispronounced. Thankfully I own a complete set of Tintin DVDs in both English and French.

Audience tastes change, new genres evolve, and techniques develop, but it that reason enough to alter a beloved classic?  Are remakes ever better?  Was Johnny Depp's Willy Wonka better than Gene Wilder's?  Is Van Sant's Psycho superior to Hitchcock's? Do any of the King Kong movies surpass the original?

What do you think? Should classics be left alone or are they fair game?

Here's another Belgian classic - this one unchanged from the original!

Belgian Endive ( "witloof") au Gratin

4 heads Belgian endive, trimmed
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
1 cup grated Gruyere cheese, divided
2 teaspoons grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg, or amount to taste
salt and ground black pepper to taste
4 slices deli-style ham
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

  • Lightly grease a baking dish.
  •  Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Drop in the endives, cover, and cook until tender, 5 to 10 minutes.
  • While the endive cook, place the butter into a saucepan, and melt over medium heat. Whisk in the flour, and stir 2 to 3 minutes to cook out the raw flour taste. Gradually add the milk into the flour mixture, whisking constantly until thick and smooth. Stir in 3/4 cup Gruyere cheese, Parmesan cheese, nutmeg, salt, and pepper until well blended. Cook gently over medium-low heat for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Sauce should the medium thick.
  • Preheat an oven broiler to low.
  • Drain the endives. Wrap each endive with a slice of ham, and place into the prepared baking dish. Pour the cheese sauce over the endives. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 cup Gruyere cheese and parsley.
  • Cook the endives under preheated broiler until cheese is golden brown and sauce bubbles, about 10 minutes.

11 January, 2012

It's a new year and I'm already behind

Once more with resolve and feeling...this year I will:
  • Waste less time on the Internet
  • Exercise more often than last year (that should be easy!)
  • Finish my manuscript revisions and start plotting a second mystery
  • Eat less junk food
  • Clean out the clothes and other items I haven't worn/used in the last 5 years.
  • Stick to a schedule.
Six little items.  Doesn't seem so hard, but here we are in the second week of January and I've already strayed -- that bag of M&M's on my desk was just taunting me.

I'm actually a very organized person, always early for appointments, but somehow the days just seem to slip away and my to-do list keeps growing. The Christmas decorations are down and packed neatly away, but the first block of my new quilt is still unfinished.

I'm blaming the social media.  One, for making me feel I can multitask and do all these things and, two, for distracting me from doing them.  Take this morning for instance.  I got up early, exercised, ate a healty breakfast (oatmeal, fruit and yogurt) and sat down to write.  Everything was fine until I needed a British expression for garbage collectors.  Type "British Expressions" into the Google search box and that was it.  Half an hour later I was reading about Indian curry recipes without any clear idea why or how I'd gotten there.  And once I get started on recipes, well let's just say I'm a recipe junkie and leave it at that.

And now it's 11 a.m. and I haven't written or revised a single word. The wash is in, the tarp is over the wood pile, the dog is walked and the piece I promised an editor is emailed, but what happened to my manuscript?

Guess I'll just have to try again tomorrow.  And the next day, and the next....

Maybe I'll start my resolutions for the Chinese New Year!  That gives me a week and a half to get my act together.  Check back on the 23rd to see how I'm doing.

10 January, 2012

What if the Cupboard were Bare?

I'm procrastinating today.  Two-thirds of the way through final edits of my manuscript and I need a break.  I can't face rereading another page, hunting for typos, unresolved red herrings, etc., so instead I'm brainstorming my next book.  So what if this one hasn't sold, I want to be ready when it does.  An agent once told me that if I wanted to submit to her agency, I'd better have two to three outlines for additional books ready.  Advice taken.

So here I am, plotting out my next mystery. Of course, I'm that odd mix of plotter and pantser who carefully lays out every chapter and promptly deviates from the script as soon as I begin typing.  But that's okay, because some of my best storylines are "ad lib." For now, I'm happy to just get my ideas on index cards and line them up in order on my corkboard.

With a working title of "Short Rations," I have my protagonist, a caterer, and her clients marooned on an island -- not Redemption Island, but a small private island off the coast of Connecticut.  An unforeseen Nor'easter has blown in, knocking out electricity and guaranteeing no one can access or leave the island. Since this is New England, there are no coconut or pineapple trees for foraging, and during a storm, no fish to be caught. So what's a girl? No crockpot, no microwave, no oven; just a big old fireplace and a woodburning stove.

I'm not a mean person, I intend to supply her with some food, but what should it be? A mystery basket from Chopped with ill assorted items like canned sardines, strawberry jam, jicama, and pita bread?  A carton of MREs left over from who knows when?  Or maybe a garden of vegetables and  pantry of basic staples?

Must be lunch time.  My stomach is rumbling just weighing the options.  I know what I would hope for, but what about you?  If you were stranded for several days on a rain-blown island, what food would you pray for in the kitchen?

05 January, 2012

The Rewards of Research

One of the perks of writing a "foodie" mystery is the research, not only for recipes but also techniques and unusual food items. This happy pursuit involves a lot of buying, testing, eating and drinking -- my kind of work!  Although I admit that when I researched fugu (blow fish) for my first book, I wasn't tempted to try it -- I wanted to live long enough to write a second book.

My current manuscript required a lot of research on wines, ranging from homemade to the ones I could never hope to afford.  Last year, 12 bottles of Chateau Heat Brion 1995 sold for $6,325, or $527 per bottle -- more than slightly out of my price range.

Hong Kong is, apparently, the new hot spot for wine auctions, edging out New York and London. Sotheby’s, Acker Merrall & Condit, and Christies all hold wine auctions there several times a year.  Wonder if I could write off a trip as business related?

Recently I've had discussions on food and wine pairing with local restaurateurs and liquor store owners - several of which ended in wine tastings.  I never cease to be amazed at how generous people are with their time and knowledge. 

Since I can't share with you a glass of the 2004 Kongsgaard Judge Chardonnay I sampled, here's a delicious recipe for cheese fondue instead. In Switzerland this would be served with a green salad and a plate of Swiss dried meats, cornichons, and pearl onions, with a fruit salad for dessert.

Cheese Fondue
1/2 pound imported Emmentaler cheese, shredded
1/2 pound Gruyere cheese, shredded
2 tablespoons cornstarch or ¼ cup flour (cornstarch makes a lighter mixture)
1 garlic clove, peeled
1 cup Chardonnay or other dry white wine
3 Tbsp Kirsch
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
Pinch nutmeg
Crusty bread, cut into cubes

In a small bowl, toss the two cheeses with either the cornstarch or flour, and set aside.

Rub the inside of a ceramic fondue pot with the garlic, then discard the garlic.
Place the pot over medium heat and add the wine.  Bring to a slow simmer.

When the wine starts to bubble, slowly add cheese by the handful, stirring between each addition. The fondue can bubble gently, but do not boil. Once the mixture is melted and smooth, add the Kirsch and nutmeg, and move the fondue pot onto a flame at the table.

Serve with bread cubes for dipping.  Small, boiled potatoes may also be dipped in the cheese.

Don't forget to pour yourself a glass of Chardonnay to go along with dinner!