Tuesday, December 22, 2009

come on in, it's still November here

Not everyone is rushing around cracked out on candy canes and hyperventilating about what else they might buy buy buy before time runs out. But too many people are, and so it's the best time of year to hide away in bed with dinner and a movie. The snow is turning to slush anyhow, so we might as well turn back the clock to autumn in Vermont. I didn't get enough crunchy orange leaves underfoot this year, or in any other.

meanwhile, in Vermont . . .

All of these screen captures are gratefully borrowed from the 1000 Frames of Hitchcock project.

wee Jerry Mathers

That's a wee little Jerry Mathers, pre-Beaver. Do you recognize the movie yet?

Harry's socks

Those socks ought to give it away, but it's one of Hitchcock's lesser-known American films and relatively few people here have seen it. It's The Trouble With Harry, and it was released in 1955 to general ambivalence and then was unavailable for thirty years. It was re-released in the Eighties but it remains under-loved — it's not even mentioned on his Wikipedia page at the moment.

There are a number of possible reasons for this. It's sometimes described as "one of Hitchcock's most British films," which is an American way of saying the humor is thought to be inscrutable and not labored enough. It didn't have any stars in it (who were stars at the time, at least). And — potentially very problematic for viewers expecting suspense — nothing much happens in it. Harry, whose stocking feet you see above, is dead from the very beginning. He's dead even in the lovely opening credits by Saul Steinberg:

Harry dead as ever, illustrated by Saul Steinberg

John McCarten, writing in The New Yorker at the time, didn't like this aspect one bit: "Alfred Hitchcock, whose work has been going steadily downhill ever since he arrived in Hollywood, skids to preposterous depths in 'The Trouble With Harry.' This is an over-blown joke about a corpse."

Harrumph! Some of us like corpse jokes very much. Especially when they're set amidst cheerfully idiosyncratic New England types, in the pastoral scenery that displays them to their best advantage. (In other words, exactly the sort of person I'd like to buy roadside maple syrup from).

care for some syrup?

what have you got that isn't maple syrup?

Among the main characters are Wiggie, who does indeed sell maple syrup, and Sam, an artist. Wiggie is played by Mildred Dunnock and Sam is played by John Forsythe, who you might recognize from teevee (he was Blake Carrington on "Dynasty" and before that, the voice of Charlie on "Charlie's Angels"). Don't let that put you off; he was surprisingly charming before Aaron Spelling embalmed him in oil money.

have you considered painting with syrup?

The Trouble With Harry also features Shirley MacLaine. It was her first film and she's adorable in it as a pouty-faced single mother. Naturally she and the handsome painter have to sort out their feelings for one another.

Shirley MacLaine before UFOs came for her spirit

aren't Vermonters supposed to exchange flannel cake recipes on occasions like this?

wooly clothing and fresh corpses are surprisingly conducive to romance

They also have to sort out what to do about Harry's corpse, and in that they have company: Miss Graveley (a spinster-ish older woman, just the type Hitchcock usually likes to do something gruesome to, played by Mildred Natwick) and Captain Wiles (a roly-poly retired sea captain who awkwardly puts the moves on her over a plate of blueberry muffins, played by Edmund Gwenn, who you've doubtlessly seen as Santa in Miracle on 34th Street).

Miss Graveley

Captain Wiles

There isn't much else to say about the plot. If black humor appeals to you the movie might become a favorite, not because any one moment is screamingly funny but because of the way the characters relate to the dead guy — each with what might seem like indifference, but each has their own cogent reasons for wanting Harry buried — and because of the way they get along with each other. Hitchcock supposedly changed the story's location from London to Vermont because he liked the contrast between the dark theme and the rural setting at its brightest and most beautiful, but there is something about the characters' individuality and the space they give one another that's a perfect fit in an idealized New England. (This subject surely deserves its own post here someday, given our tendency to head north to Maine every summer, where the good humor and neighborliness of the seemingly granite-faced locals tends to be lost on first-time visitors. Having grown up in Connecticut I feel qualified to draw distinctions among hundreds of varieties of froideur, from the loving kind to the truly disdainful, each of which manifests itself differently depending on the class of the bearer. Eskimos have many words for snow, etc.) Anyhow, if you like the idea of warm and witty people digging a grave together — and your definition of "warm" is not too inflexible — The Trouble With Harry is just the right film for curling up with on a cold night.

But what to eat? If your kitchen isn't a gingerbread-scented shitshow at the moment and you can bear to face something other than take-out, it might be nice to start off with some crisp chickpea flour pancakes with black olive and sage.

chickpea flour pancakes with black olives & sage

Maybe you have a sack of chickpea flour left over from when Bittman urged you to make something similar a few months back? Or maybe you are a long-time reader who has had the stuff sitting around since I enthused about basic Indian ones in ye olde 2006? Probably not. It doesn't matter. The point is, they're amenable to just about any direction you want to take them in. These latest ones were vaguely Mediterranean, without belonging to (or desecrating) any one particular tradition.

It's nice to have some kind of sauce or chutney or something with them for textural contrast, and with these we had a sort of celery / hazelnut / Manchego salsa. You could definitely make the whole dish vegan by leaving the cheese out. If I hadn't had a little bit of it that needed to be used up I wouldn't have bothered to go out and get some.

celery / manchego / hazelnut salsa

chickpea flour pancakes with black olives and sage
and celery / hazelnut / Manchego salsa

The number of servings will depend on how hungry everyone is and what else you're serving, but this should be enough for at least 4 people as a first course.

for the pancakes:

2 cups chickpea flour (also called besan in Indian grocery stores)
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon fine sea salt (or a little less if your olives are very salty)
2 cups cold water
1 heaping tablespoon finely sliced fresh sage leaves
approximately 1/3 cup oil-cured black olives, pitted and chopped (or whatever your favorite type of olive is . . .)
olive oil for cooking
additional fresh sage leaves, whole, for decorating the pancakes (optional)

for the celery / hazelnut / Manchego salsa:

2 stalks of celery, very finely sliced
2 heaping tablespoons toasted and skinned hazelnuts, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil (if the celery is very fresh you may only need 1)
a pinch of fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 to 3 tablespoons Manchego cheese, very finely sliced and then chopped or crumbled into bite-sized pieces

Sift the chickpea flour into a bowl, stir in the salt and the cayenne pepper, and slowly stir in the cold water 1/2 cup at a time, adding more only when you've gotten the lumps out of what you started with. (This isn't difficult if you make a little well in the center of the dry flour and spice mixture, pour the water in it, and slowly bring in more and more of the flour with your spoon). When all of the water is incorporated the batter should be very much like typical breakfast pancake batter. Madhur Jaffrey says that when preparing her Indian recipe for these you should set the batter aside for 30 minutes before using it and I always do, but I don't know why it's necessary. After you've let the batter rest, give it a good stir and see whether any stubborn lumps remain. If so, you can strain the batter through a sieve.

Stir the sage and the chopped olives into the batter and heat a heavy skillet (preferably cast iron or non-stick) over medium-high heat. Drizzle in enough olive oil to coat the bottom evenly and when it's very hot (but not smoking hot) add 1/4 cup or so of batter to the pan, tilting the pan to spread the batter around evenly. If you like, place a few whole fresh sage leaves on the uncooked side of the pancake that's facing up at you before you flip it over. Whether you do this or not, it's a good idea to drizzle a tiny bit more olive oil over the uncooked side of the first pancake before you flip it. (You may not need it for the following pancakes, but the first one can be too dry without it). Flip the pancake over when it's starting to look crisp at the edges and cook the other side until golden brown. (Cook for approximately 3 to 4 minutes per side). Stack the cooked pancakes on a layer of paper towel or clean kitchen towel to absorb any excess oil and keep going until the batter's gone. Stir it once in a while as you're cooking to make sure that all the olives and sage don't end up in the last pancake.

While the pancakes are cooking, stir the salsa ingredients together in a small bowl and set aside. Add the cheese last; otherwise it will be very crumbly.

Leftover pancakes can be kept in the refrigerator and reheated until crisp in a medium-hot oven. (If your oven is on the nod, you can even reheat them in a electric panini press, like the ones with faint grill marks pictured above).

The pancakes are very filling for a first course so don't plan on following them with anything too heavy. Radish greens soup would be just right and requires very little in the way of ingredients. I wrote about it here (scroll down a bit), and a direct link to the recipe is here.

Did you want dessert too? It had better have maple syrup in it after all this leaf-peeping. I enthusiastically recommend a Maple-Buttermilk Pudding Cake, which is so much nicer than it looks. I promise it's nothing at all like the greenish lump of cornbread it appears to be. I have no idea whether the recipe is authentic or not but it's so good warm out of the oven that I'm confident you could seduce any French-Canadian Christmas tree vendor you've had your eye on with a spoonful of it.

maple-buttermilk pudding cake with crème fraîche

It's gooey and richly-flavored with maple syrup (too gooey to be a proper "cake," really, since the syrup on the bottom doesn't solidify) and it's just perfect with a little blob of crème fraîche on top. Don't even think of making it with imitation "pancake topping" (or whatever that sad gunk is called). It's not a fancy dessert at all but that's all the more reason to use good, honest maple syrup: it's the dominant flavor here, so it had better come out of a picturesque maple tree at the hands of a picturesque backwoods beard-wearer rather than an industrial vat of corn syrup and synthetic flavors.

Semi-related (click on images for links):

dinner and a movie Part I
The first post in our very-occasional series about dinner and a movie involved a pizza that was better for breakfast.

Hitchcock's Films Revisited
If you are a Hitchcock nut I've got a little something in my bookshop for you.


  1. Paul A.11:37 AM

    I am a fellow cook and eater on the Manhattan-Maine circuit, and your site makes me happy!

    Is that a bottle of syrup on Cpt. Wiles's breakfast table?

  2. That's great, thanks Paul!
    I think it's some sort of homemade wine but I'm sure there's syrup on the table too, somewhere ...

  3. Paul A.1:43 PM

    Maple wine perhaps!

    What's on the plate for New Year festiveness?

  4. I have no idea just yet but whatever it is I'm looking forward to it; I've had enough of 2009! I've always meant to go see Patti Smith's New Years Eve show at Bowery Ballroom and I always end up either staying in or fleeing the city, so maybe I'll try to turn over a new leaf for once and go to that ...

  5. I should have added I did once go to Maine for New Years. I think it's just about the perfect place to be on the 31st if you've got a fireplace and a good bottle of Scotch.

  6. Paul A.5:51 PM

    Interesting. I'm casting around for ideas myself. I haven't had a good flee in a while, so maybe I'll try that. Montreal is a good spot to do the fireplace-and-whisky bit as well.

    But really I meant the literal plate -- round foods for luck, eggs for rebirth, hoppin' John for prosperity, jiaozi for prosperity...

  7. I usually leave that until the last minute too, but I'm perpetually intending to do something with black eyed peas, if only because I've never cooked them in any form. Any recommendations? I think long noodles are another New Year dish, long noodles for long life. Jiaozi sound nice but maybe a bit too challenging for hungover fingers!

  8. Paul A.1:32 AM

    I think jiaozi are a dish for the 31st. You gonna be hung over already?

    Black-eyed peas have a fine affinity for jalapenos and maybe celery. They're good as hoppin' John -- "Serious Pig" has a recipe -- but better I'd say in a bright-crunchy-spicy bean salad, or in fritters!

    Noodles are an excellent idea; perhaps I'll finally do Fuchsia Dunlop's dan dan ones.

    And fritters.

  9. Ha, I ought to be ok on the 31st! Spicy black bean salad sounds great, maybe with jalapenos and lime juice, etc. I have been eying this recipe for fritters for a while:

  10. Paul A.4:48 PM

    Those look tasty! but potentially denser than the ones I have in my mind, which include at least a modest dose of fluffening ingredients like flour and/or egg. (Also some whole or semi-whole peas, not just puree.)

    The ones I've had in Harlem do have that sort of lighter hushpuppiness. I haven't been to the Brooklyn Senegalese place Mr. Terry refers to as his hot sauce inspiration; have you?

  11. No, I haven't. I haven't ever eaten these anywhere, actually! I think that without anything to make them fluffy, they must be similar to baya kyaw, which is a lentil fritter I order from the Burmese restaurant in our neighborhood. They are dense but not unpleasantly so. Anyhow, I think I'm going to make some of that hot sauce regardless of whether I make the black eyed pea fritters; I feel like I need something spicy after having too many holiday sweets around the house.

  12. welcome back, my friend (very large smile).

  13. Thanks dali momma! Trying to get photos & etc. organized so I can get back to posting more regularly . . .

  14. Paul A.1:46 PM

    I believe I know the Burmese spot you're referring to, but I've never tried their fritters.

    I made mine New Year's Day with: a cup or so of cooked black-eyed peas, rescued from the hoppin' john pot and partially mushed with a fork; a raw egg; handful minced celery and jalapeno; squeeze of lemon; cayenne; garlic; black pepper; salt. Stir in AP flour till it becomes stickily doughy, about 1 cup probably. Also a half-teaspoon of baking powder.

    Fry little balls of dough in peanut oil in cast-iron pan till golden and puffy; eat hot with fingers, sprinkling on vinegary hot sauce as needed.

  15. Paul those sound tasty! I didn't cook a damn thing on New Year's Day because our gas is out. Con Ed's been digging away at a hole in the street outside my building for days now . . . everyone in the building is getting VERY tired of salads and take-out.

  16. Paul A.4:59 PM

    Oh no! If I'd known I would have fried up extras.

    You can practice cooking with other appliances maybe. Clothes iron as griddle?

  17. Now that you mention it, Paul, I do have a pretty powerful hairdryer. Stay tuned for shiny, manageable cuisine free of troublesome split ends . . .

  18. Paul A.1:07 PM

    Did some comments disappear? I came here to reply to myself -- it's evidently elderberry wine -- but now I can't find my initial wine wondering.

  19. WEIRD.

    Will see what I can do . . .