Outline

I’ve just read the second book in Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, and it’s fabulous — perhaps even better than the first?

Anyway, it reminded me that I read a shattering and hilarious parody of Cusk in a Norwegian newspaper a few months back.

So I translated it into English; I hope nobody minds? I think it’s too funny (and accurate) not to be translated. Hey, author, if you want this removed, just leave a comment and I’ll do so.

Here it is:

Rachel Cusk (abbreviated)

KNUT NÆRUM

A monthly column that saves you time by giving you the essence of stuff you think you ought to have read. This time: Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy.

Because it was the last night of the festival for literary realism, and the other participants had apparently decided to call it a night early, I chose to have a walk on the beach in this unspecified country. The fishing boats were beached on the shore, with the painted eyes on the bows angled toward the beach promenade’s many restaurants and bars. I stopped by the restaurants that looked most promising; that is those that had guests, but weren’t too busy and therefore too loud. After visiting five places where nobody had entrusted themselves to me, I needed, to my surprise, to visit a restroom and went into a sixth establishment. When I left the bathroom, a women in a dress with vertical stripes asked me to join her at her table — she was alone with a bottle of wine — and listen to her talk, which I naturally agreed to.

At eight years old, she had had her tonsils removed. When she was leaving the hospital, she told me, the surgeon had approached her with a screw-top mason jar, wherein her tonsils were preserved in alcohol, and asked her if she wanted to keep them. At home she placed the jar on a bookshelf in her room, where everybody could admire them. One day, however, the jar was gone, and when she asked her parents if they knew where her tonsils had disappeared to, her father had immediately admitted that he’d thrown them out, since they were gross and infectious. The girl had never forgiven her father his transgression, and eleven years later she left home.

Maybe, I thought, saving your tonsils in a mason jar on a shelf isn’t that different from writing. It’s something you cut from your own life and then store in a way that can be observed by others, and that some people consider that in poor taste and unhygienic. At the same time I couldn’t help thinking that if you look long enough, you find somebody that tells a story that sheds light on your own life.

On the way back I chose a different route, through the centre of town. On a cobbled street in the old town I heard commotion and gay noises from a cafe decorated with coloured light bulbs and windows open to the street. Inside were all the other authors, who had apparently gone to this place to celebrate the end of the festival.

I entered, and as my colleagues caught sight of me, they grew noticeably quieter. I asked one of them, a man with a grey beard, if they had forgotten to tell me where they were going. He told me the didn’t think I’d be interested, but I could see in his eyes that this was about them being afraid that I was going to repeat everything everybody said in a book. Hang on, I said, let me write this down.

BC&B: Morue à la Provençale le Caméléon w/ Aïoli

Food time!

The salt cod dishes in the Bistro Cooking book have been pretty spiffy… this one looks like it’s in a more bacalaoish direction than the previous ones, what with all the tomatoes and stuff.

There’s all the usual stuff… and then a whole lot of herbs. Even before starting to cook, it smells delicious.

Heeeerbs…

Oh yeah, there’s the salted cod that I’ve been watering for a day or so.

Quite a lot of onions and tomatoes: Half a kilo onions and two kilos of tomatoes (and half a kilo cod).

My favourite kitchen implement (after my new spiffy knives) are these bowls. I’ve got a whole stack of them, and they stack really well, so they take next to no room, but whenever I need something to put something in, these are usually perfect. And very steely.

Chop chop chop chop.

These herb-cutting shears are also really nice. Dishwasher safe, too. Makes chopping herbs so much easier and faster.

OK, so the onions go into a pan to soften up…

And then dump in all the tomatoes.

And then all the herbs. Mmm.

Looks like a sauce.

And there’s aioli to go with the potatoes.

I’ve made aioli before, but it was not a huge success. You see that recipe? Garlic, salt, egg yolks and extra-virgin olive oil? Basically everybody agrees that that’s a totally loopy recipe: It tastes way harsh. Most of the other recipes add lemon juice and Dijon mustard, so I’ll try that this time.

So it’s garlic and salt…

Mashed with a pestle.

Then add egg yolks…

… and then stir in the olive oil slowly. It didn’t break! And then I added lemon juice and mustard… and it was still pretty harsh, dude.

I see that basically everybody else recommends using mostly neutral oil, and just one third extra virginity stuff, and I think that’s a very sound idea, because this was balls-to-the-wall virgin, man.

Meanwhile the sauce has been puttering away…

… so it’s time to start the cod. Bay leaves and thyme…

… and then tear it all up. Looks pretty bad, but it’s a bit on the delicious side.

And then into the onion and tomato sauce for a couple of minutes.

Oh, I need something to read while eating. The next book on the shelf is What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli & Adam Silvera, and I have no recollection of buying it. Let’s read the first three pages:

Oh, it’s a teenage romance comedy New York thing. We’ll, that’s fine by me.

And served with boiled potatoes with aioli.

Hm… well… it’s OK? But the tomato sauce definitely needs more… more… It just needs more. The sauce was rather flat: It needs more garlic, more herbs, and more chili, and perhaps some paprika? I mean, it’s not bad, but it needs more.

More more.

The book tries so hard have the repartee be witty, but mostly land on “well, that’s an awkward stream of words” instead. I appreciate the effort, but it’s not actually funny.

And I’m not the prime audience for this book (you may be surprised to learn that I’m not a teenager *gasp*), but everything in this book is so deadly earnest. Whenever our two protagonists get together, one of them will say something that’s just So Seriously Inadvertently Wrong that there’s all this sadness and low-key drama that ensues that it just gets a bit unbearable after a while. There’s four hundred pages of this stuff, and it’d be excessive at half that length.

Still, there’s some cute scenes here and there. It’s fine.

But it needs more.

More more.

Which made this a perfect pairing with the dish.

This blog post is part of the Bistro
Cooking & Books
series.

BC&B: Tranche de Gigot La Boutarde w/ Tarte au Citron Madame Cartet

Food and book time!

I usually shop specifically for the dishes in the Bistro Cooking book, but today I saw some lamb cutlets and I thought that surely there’d be a recipe for that in the book, even if that meant I had to cheat and skip forward a bit in the Les Viandes chapter. Such naughty.

Oops! There isn’t.

But there’s this, which is a lamb leg slice dish, so it’s… close-ish?

I also decided to make a potato mash, and I thought there’d surely be a mash recipe in the book, but there isn’t? What? How is that even possible?

So I just made a Canna Mash.

The recipe is: Boil some potatoes, add some salt/pepper and lots of thyme…

… and then keep adding butter to it until it says I CANNA TAKE ANY MORE BUTTER, CAPN!

Or you run out of butter, which I did here, after adding 250g butter to 500g potato. So I added some cream, too.

It’s practically keto!

Anyway, back to the lamb recipe… First I saute a bunch of garlic cloves in a pan (along with some thyme). The recipe talked about garlic skins and stuff, but I only had fresh garlic, so no… papery skins. Which I think is a plus, anyway?

After about eight minutes they seemed tender and nice.

Then cook the cutlets in the same pan until desired done-ness (which for me, with lamb, means “remove from the pan two seconds after there’s no redness left”… what is that? Medium well?).

And then the pan is deglazed with some white wine, and then the garlic is returned to the pan to head up again.

There.

Mmm… that mash is delicious. I’ve made it twice before, and the first time it came out fabulous, and the second time it was meh, and this time it was fabulous again. I guess it depends a lot on the quality of the potatoes.

And the lamb cutlets! So flavourful! And the white wine garlicey thymey sauce! Yum!

I was slightly surprised by the garlic, though: I thought they would taste full-on garlic garlic, but instead they were more ok-that’s-garlic? Perhaps using dried (or whatever they call non-fresh garlic) would have been better, because it would have retained more garlicness after sauteeing?

Anyway, delicious!

The book didn’t quite go with the dish, though:


Today’s book is *gasp* Norwegian. It’s not that I avoid Norwegian books, but… they do seem to be somewhat under-represented on my shelves.

This one was a gift from the Xmas before last? I think? I’ve read one book by Gert Nygårdshaug before, and I thoroughly loathed it. But that’s several decades ago… and perhaps this one is… better? Zoo Europa seems to be the nth book in a book series about … well, I have no idea. Looks kinda post-apocalyptic on the cover there? If you can read Norwegian, you can read along with me the first three pages.

Geez. It’s just like the book of his that I loathed. It’s written in a style reminiscent of 50s Norwegian, but liberally sprinkled with words that must have been archaic even then. Well, I don’t really mind: It gives everything a mannered, distanced quality, I guess…

He drops us right into the post-apocalyptic action, with several characters running around the world. There’s been a civil war between the Nazis and the fundamentalist Muslims in Europe, and civilisation has broken down.

Most chapters are short and end on a cliffhanger. The main viewpoint character is somebody who seems unrealistically out of touch, but that gives the other, wiser characters plenty of opportunity to info-dump at him (and the reader) endlessly. I guess that’s a better technique than having people “as you know, Bob, I’m your brother Jim” which even worse writers than Nygårdshaug commonly does, but it’s still rather grating.

As I said, I know nothing about the previous books in this series, so I don’t know whether all the characters are recapping them or delivering new information, but I’m guessing that it’s mostly recaps. There’s a lot of it.

The plot is… I don’t know what word to use. Childish? Child-like? It’s basically a sci-fi novel, but the concepts are so ludicrously simple-minded (a magical forest; a plague that kills 80% of people, but totally painlessly; the Baroness with the Hobbit house) that I started looking around on the cover for something like “for readers age 12 to 16”, but, nope. So I did something I never do while reading books: I googled for it to see whether it’s a kids’ book… and… none of the reviewers seem to touch on it, so I guess not?

It’s just… stupid?

And then it hit me! This is a 50s sci-fi novel! It’s just like a Heinlein juvie! It’s got that “sensawunda” thing going on, with (literally) unbelievable concepts dropped into an adventure story here and there, where our heroes fix the world (or whatever).

After readjusting my brain a bit, reading got easier. Instead of me going “this is silly…” every two pages, I’m now going “this is silly!” Makes all the difference in the world.

Of course Heinlein didn’t make Houellebecq references in the 50s, but he probably would have if he could.

OK, but I need a dessert after the lamb cutlets. And since I cheated with that recipe, I skipped ahead in the cake section of the book until I found something where I had all the ingredients (because no shopping today).

So it’s a lemon pie: My second pie ever.

So it’s got like these ingredients.


OK, there’s a Pâte Sablée pie crust to make first…

So you blitz the ingredients in a fud professer, and it turns into a gooey, horribly sticky mess,

And then… smear it onto waxed paper?

And then try to tip it into the tin…

And then even out everything and smear everything into all the crevices of the pie tin. Because this dough is just impossibly sticky.

And then into the fridge for… FUCKING THREE HOURS?! I don’t have three hours!!! I’m running on fumes (rum and Stargate: SG1) already… I’ll give it an hour…

OK, out of the fridge.

Line it with foil.

Pour the er pie balls? into the tin. (This is the part that took the longest, because I couldn’t find my balls anywhere. They turned out to be… in the cupboard where they were supposed to be, but behind something else.)

And then into the oven for 20 minutes.

And it comes out looking… kinda… pancakey? That’s weird.

Well, back into the over for another 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, I make the filling, which is just lemon juice, sugar, some cream and lots of eggs.

Eep! After 15 minutes, this looks kinda…. done? I think? The edges are…. crispy!

Holey pie crust, Batman! It’s pie crust, and it has holes!

OK, I put it on a baking sheet… perhaps the leakage will… slow…

Well, this isn’t going to be pretty.

Well, OK, it didn’t leak… that much. But was it supposed to raise or something? Hm, I guess not, because the eggs aren’t like whisked that much…

Well, it didn’t. It’s flat as a flat omelette, only flatter.

Hm…

The crust is surprisingly good. The lemon egg thing is very tart indeed… I think it needs like 2x the sugar.

But it’s OK.

Reading this book got easier when reading it as a 50s juvie, but the sheer stupidity flowing through these pages… I get the distinct feeling that the author thinks he’s all kinds of clever (quantum consciousness: it’s particles that make up consciousness), and you feel like you’re being condescended to by a moron.

Beyond that, the sheer amount of repetition is tiresome. Most of these short chapters start with a page or two of people recapping to each others (and the readers) what we’ve read just a few pages earlier. It’s maddening.

But he’s got his fans: A previous book in the series was voted “best Norwegian book ever” in 2007.

That’s the most frightening thing I’ve heard this year, and this is a year with Covid-19.

BC&B: Poulet Basquaise w/ Céleri Rémoulade

Food time.

The next starter in the Bistro Cooking book is another rémoulade. And… it does look like a nice slaw, doesn’t it? Celery root and Dijon mustard. But… that’s like the entire dish? Just a slaw as a dish? That’s… kinda… Perhaps this is the the best slaw ever.

Anyway, it’s just those ingredients.

First mix the non-celery ingredients together…

Then I grated the celery root in the FUD professor.

And then just mix them together.

Yes, that’s all.

Well, it’s… a celery root slaw with a Dijon kinda thing going on. It’s very nice. But… as a dish by itself?

I still don’t get it. I added some bread and ate a whole bunch. It’s nice, so I had to find something to read while munching.

Today’s book is by Agatha Christie. A gasp is heard. “Agatha Christie? Surely you’ve read them before?” Yes, but not this one, because it’s a Mary Westmacott book: Christie wrote a handful of books under that name, and I’ve somehow never gotten around to it.

I think they’re… romances? But that’s all I know. Well, I don’t even know that. Let’s read the first three pages together:

Oh, well. Hm. Perhaps there are other reasons these books usually aren’t seen these days? It seems to start off in a very anti-Semitic mode, doesn’t it? The railing against modern music seems par for the course, but I didn’t quite recall that Christie was this conservative this early in her life. I mean, this book is from 1930.

Well, we’ll see… perhaps she’s really making fun of the fuddie-duddies and this “dirty foreign Jew” Levinne will turn out to be the romantic hero of the book, even if he has a “yellow” face and “beady and black” eyes and “enormous” ears.

I’m not holding my breath, though.

Well, time to make the mains.

After yet another not particularly good beef dish from the Bistro Cooking last week, I’m turning to the next chicken dish in the book. The chicken dishes have been somewhat hit or miss, but the hits have been pretty tasty.

Now, this one has the proper number of ingredients. It’s more fun when there’s more to chop.

Patricia Wells is usually very light on the spices. She’ll do salt and pepper, and if very adventurous, add some thyme. But this is a Basque(ish) dish, so it has peppers. She specifies four mild or two not-so-mild peppers, so I did three mild and three not-so-mild peppers.

You can see from the directions in the book that it’s really from another era: She suggests using rubber gloves while cutting the chillies. I didn’t. Hah! And I remembered not to poke myself in the eye with a finger while cutting.

Speaking of cutting: After the previous chicken I butchered, I thought I needed something more sturdy, because my kitchen knife just wasn’t well-suited for the task. Too light. So I got this axe! Hah hah!

Poor little chicken.

Chop chop. Cutting up the chicken was so much easier and almost (dare I say it) fun with the axe. It slices the meat like magic and hacking off the joints was so so easy with it. It’s my new favourite kitchen thing.

And then the chicken bits are browned on each side. I did it in several batches.

This dish has a weird amount of paprika: One kilo. I thought I misread the recipe the first time, but nope. I wonder how that’s going to turn out…

Lots of garlic in this thing, too.

And Parma ham! It’s got everything.

So when the chicken was done browning I had chopped everything in sight, and then it all goes into the same pan.

Behold! The paprika!

So while that’s cooking, there a sauce to make, which is very simple. It’s just onions, braised a bit..

And then a bunch of tinned tomatoes. Add some salt and pepper and that’s puttering away for half an hour…

Until very saucy.

Meanwhile, the paprika kinda… got reduced. A lot! There were no fluids added to the chicken pot: All that liquid is just from the paprika. Which is very tender now.

It’s…

Delicious!

There’s so many flavours going on here, with the peppers and the paprika, and it’s the perfect amount of paprika. It’s really quite special; easily the best dish I’ve made from the Bistro Cooking book. Hm. Except that salted cod one; that was also fantastic.

And the recipe claims that the leftovers are even better the next day. I guess I’ll find out.

I was all kinds of wrong about the book. First of all, it’s not a romance. Second of all, I was sarcastically suggesting that Levinne might turn out to be the romantic hero of the book… and… he isn’t, but he’s best friends with the main protagonist, and has been absolutely 100% decent and swell up till now.

So what kind of book is this? Is this Christie’s attempt at “straight” literature? Because if it is, it kinda doesn’t quite work.

With mystery books, there’s a built-in reason to read the book: Find out who the murderer is. With non-prefixed literature, it can be any number of things, but just telling us the life’s story of somebody we have no reason to be interested in… it’s usually not that. It doesn’t really seem like Christie is trying to say anything much about upper-class English people, either. It reads like she’s writing a mystery book, but forgot to put the mystery in.

That’s not to say that it’s an annoying read. Christie has written some awful, awful books, but when she’s on form, the books are fun to read, and so is this. I guess part of the attraction is just figuring out if she’s going anywhere with all this, because the plot itself (as it is) is preposterous: It’s about a guy who envisions music as a 4D space and is going to revolutionise music. So, Schoenberg, basically. I didn’t really peg Christie for a fan of serial music, but… then again, I know nothing about her.

It’s a slightly odd reading experience. Whenever I sit down to read it, I feel my mind going “*gah* I don’t wanna; I have no interest in this”. But then fifty pages fly past without me being annoyed in any way.

I guess what I’m saying is that it’s superficially well-written; the scenes have a flow and everything seems to just happen nicely without there being any snags. But the problem remains in that there’s no reason to be interested in reading about these non-entities.

It is slightly interesting that Christie is so sympathetic to these somewhat bohemian artistic people. As the grew older, she’d get more conservative, I think?

But I wonder what people thought of the book at the time. Here’s the Observer being very snippy:

Giant’s Bread is an ambitious and surprisingly sentimental story about a young man with musical genius, mixed love-affairs, a lost memory, a family tradition, and other commodities out of the bag of novelist’s tricks. Miss Westmacott shows narrative talent; but would presumably be more original if she strained less after originality. I should expect her book to be very popular.

I won’t be reading any further Westmacott books, I think.

This blog post is part of the Bistro
Cooking & Books
series.

BC&B: Gardiane La Cargue w/ Cervelas Rémoulade

Busyness never ends, so I’ve had no time to read anything… which means that I can’t cook anything either. It’s this whole concept.

Finally, time for some food.

So the starter couldn’t possibly be simpler: It’s sausages with a Dijon mayonnaise. But that means that I get another crack at making mayonnaise: My two previous attempts at making aioli (basically the same thing) were less than perfect.

Simple ingredients.

This time, instead of trying to use an electric mixer thing, I thought I’d do it the old-fashioned way.

Just whisk the yolks a bit, and then add a teensy amount of oil, and whisk some more, and then a bit more and etc etc you get the idea. And it worked! The mayo didn’t break!

I did, however, spill the oil over the counter while doing all this. Do you know how many paper towels are required to map up two cups of oil?

All of them.

ALL OF THEM.

Should have used a squeegee instead.

The recipe didn’t specify heating the sausages, but I thought it sounded nicer warm…

And it’s a … simple dish? It’s Dijon mayo over sausage. But with some bread, it’s a very nice nibbly little dish to nibble on while reading a book.

Which is Geoff Dyer’s White Sands.

I’ve previously read only his Zona book. It’s about Stalker, and it’s fabulous. It’s structured as a sort of meditation and a diversion from doing what Dyer should be doing, so he’s retelling the plot of Stalker and talking about other things, and it has lines like:

There are more and more things […] from which one has to avert one’s ears and eyes. With television I have my strict rule, a rule applying to Jeremy Clarkson, Jonathan Ross, Russell Brand, Graham Norton and a whole bunch of others whose names I don’t even know; I won’t have these people in the house.

How can you not love this man? So I bough a handful of his books, but haven’t found the time to read them.

Let’s look at the first pages here:

Well, OK, this isn’t Zona. It reads like it’s a selection of magazine articles… which it turns out to be! Darn! That’s really not my favourite genre of writing.

But, I mean, it’s fine… Dyer tries to make it cohere with some interstitial bits, and many of the pieces are about travelling to see big outdoors art pieces (like the Watts Towers). But it reads like a collection of magazine articles. Interesting ones, and it made me want to go have a peek at some of these things, like the Spiral Jetty.

And the bit about Svalbard was very funny. I mean, Dyer is witty throughout: It’s a pleasant, fun read, but I was still disappointed. Perhaps with my expectations lowered somewhat, the next Dyer book I read will be less er disappointing.

So I need more food:

So this is yet another beef stew, and like the previous (how many is it now? three? four?) beef stews, it’s the same thing: Throw some beef into a pan with some wine, let it sit for a day in the fridge, and then steep the fuck out of it.

So the normal ingredients… this time the variation is that we have olives in the stew.

So chuck some chuck in a pan with some veggies, and pour over some wine, and then into the fridge.

It comes out looking quite purple the day after. And not very appetising.

Then we brown the shit out of it.

New gadget time! Patricia Wells (the author of the Bistro Cooking book that I’m cooking my way through methodically) has a thing for olives from Nyons. She specifies “preferably from Nyons” whenever she says “olives”. Perhaps it’s just an autocomplete bug in her typewriter? Anyway, I ordered some from Amazon in the US, and they arrived in a smashed glass. And then I ordered some from Amazon in the UK, and they arrived… ripe? The glass made a “WHOOSH” sound when I opened it, and the olives were rotten, through and through. And then I ordered some Nyons olives from (you guessed it) Amazon in France, and they arrived whole and edible.

So I get a chance to try out this new gadget, which de-pits pitted olives.

And… it works?

The Nyons olives tasted just fine, but I’m not sure it was worth it all. They’re kinda on the mushy side, and I prefer them a bit firmer, but they’re fine.

So, into a pot for some cooking. The recipe specified “two sprigs of thyme”, so I put half a plant in. Wells is very … careful? about spices and herbs.

Well, OK, doesn’t that look… appetising…

No, indeed, it does not.

Man, these pics are totally out of focus… I must have twiddled with something on the camera…

It tastes… like… it looks? It’s not very interesting this time either. Perhaps I’m using the wrong cuts of beef, or the wrong wine? It should just taste… more…

Oh, well.

This blog post is part of the Bistro
Cooking & Books
series.