Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Salaam, Mira Nair.

Can't wait for Friday! That's when one of my favorite books comes to the big screen.

Mira Nair is responsible for the film adaptation of the brilliant novel The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri.

I really love the work of South Asian (Deshi) writers, and this one is among my favorites. It tells the story of a Bengali immigrant couple and their struggle to adapt to Western life. Their first child is born in Massachusetts, and they name him Gogol, after the Russian writer.

The Namesake was a resounding success for Jhumpa Lahiri, but she didn’t let that go to her head. Get an insight into this down-to-earth writer in her interview with the Washington Post in 2003.

Now combine her craft with that of the brilliant Mira Nair.

Salaam Bombay, Monsoon Wedding, Mississippi Masala and Vanity Fair (ironically, I just wrote about it in my March 1st post on the Bollywood craze among young white Brits.) Watch those films, and I need say no more.

I wonder how much the film will depart from the novel, though. According to IMDb, the film is a comedy/drama. The novel really didn't strike me as comedic, so - must wait and see.

Nair gave a very nice interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross on Tuesday. You can listen to it here.

Finally, the face behind the voice!!

This is the voice of Eliza Dolittle in "My Fair Lady." This is who you heard in "West Side Story" as Maria. And she is also the voice behind Anna in "The King and I."

She is Marni Nixon, the woman whose voice supported Audrey, Natalie and Deborah in the musical film roles. I've only seen Marni in a little (singing) role as one of the nuns in The Sound of Music, complaining about the problem (like Maria.)

Now 77, Mrs. Nixon is in the New York Philharmonic’s concert-style revival of "My Fair Lady" at Lincoln Center this week.

Here's the story.

30 minutes? Try a dish in 30 SECONDS.

On Saturday morning, I caught an episode of Jacques Pepin’s public television show, Fast Food My Way, and felt a renewed appreciation for the skill, mastery and frugality of this elegant chef’s creations.

He opens each show with a simple dish whipped out in about 30 seconds!

There’s a cold black bean soup, which begins with a can of black beans pureed in a food processor with garlic, olive oil and hot sauce, then garnished with a little bit of sour cream, cilantro, sliced banana and crushed tortillas.

In the episode I watched, he tossed canned sliced beets with salt, pepper and sour cream, and set them on a bed of endive leaves. Took him about 15 very calm seconds, delivered in his reassuring voice.

I had the great pleasure of meeting and chatting with him (“please call me Jacques!”) last November at a private gathering and demonstration the night before his Yakima Town Hall lecture. We talked a little bit about his show, about Singapore food (it’s impossible to talk about Singapore without the subject of food coming up fairly quickly), and ingredients: we both agreed that the egg is completely underrated in American cooking. Apart from breakfast dishes, how often do you see eggs as the star of an entrĂ©e? He told me about a couple of simple sauces that elevate the humble egg. I told him about the days when I raised chickens on a mix of free range, vegetable scraps and grain, and was totally spoiled by having an unlimited access to fresh eggs with yolks so orange my cakes almost looked like they had food coloring added. It was something to which Jacques could relate from his boyhood in France.

Throughout the evening, Jacques showed a frugal sensibility, which also comes across on the show. He peppered his demonstration mentioning how much one could save by using one ingredient instead of another with no sacrifice in taste. Or, as he took the wings off a whole chicken and turned them inside out to form a “lollipop,” quickly calculated it would cost $6.50 as an appetizer in a restaurant. THAT, my friends, is a real chef – one who keeps a constant eye on the bottom line.

So I share now Jacques’ tips on the economical use of mushrooms.

The simple button mushroom, he said, has at least as much flavor as the more expensive varieties.

We’ve heard that the way to pick mushrooms in the store is to look for those with tight caps, with no separation from the stem. Yet Jacques said he often looks for the mushrooms in the bargain bin, a little past display prime, but with even more flavor with their age. And they're very cheap, to boot!

I can support the bit about flavor. There was once when I left a paper bag of these mushrooms on my counter before leaving on a vacation. When I came back, the caps had shriveled, but hadn’t gone bad. I tossed them into a pot of water with other vegetables and ended up with the richest vegetable broth I have ever made. Following that discovery, in the summer I sometimes dry mushrooms exactly like that, in a paper bag. They make particularly rich sauces and stews. (None of the local supermarkets has a bargain bin that I know of; but there is one in the food co-op - I should start paying more attention to what it has to offer.)

Jacques’ other fungus tip: - it’s okay to wash the little guys. Merci beaucoup!!! Wiping mushrooms with a damp cloth – it’s just too Martha for me. And if you’ve ever examined the amount of gunk that washes off those caps, you’d get rid of them damp cloth and dunk the ‘shrooms in a bowl of water too. But Jacques did say it’s key to wash them only immediately before use.

I’ll write more about my meeting with Jacques Pepin in future posts. Meantime, if you haven’t watched his show or read any of his books, I highly recommend them. He’s the real deal, trained in the old school where chefs had to start at the very bottom of the brutal kitchen hierarchy and work their way up by grueling labor and mastery of technique. He was a chef before it was a fashionable and lucrative career. In this day of celebrity chefs, it’s so refreshing to see a modest yet utterly charming gentleman go about his work without bluster. May the culinary world raise more of his ilk.