Monday, January 31, 2011

Cozy February Dinner

It really is bliss on a chilly February evening to stay home and eat a home cooked dinner. I love to have friends over during the week in the winter.  Sometimes it's just for getting together, sometimes it's for dinner and playing Bridge, sometimes it's for a television night, such as Super Bowl.  But for any of those occasions, one of my favorite go to dinners  is Turkey Chili.  It is super easy, good for you, and always a hit. I serve it with Butternut Squash Quesadillas with Chipotle Lime Sour Cream dip, and a big Caesar Salad.

Soup tureen filled with Turkey Chili

I love it with sharp cheddar cheese on top

The Butternut Squash Quesadillas are from an old recipe in Gourmet magazine.  I have been making them for years.

First step is roasting the butternut squash, onions and garlic

Grilling them until they are toasty and the cheese melts inside

Keep them warm on a baking tray that goes into the oven set at 200 degrees

Serve them with Chipotle and Lime Sour Cream

Here is the recipe for Roasted Butternut Squash, Red Pepper, and Jack Cheese Quesadillas with Chipotle Lime Sour Cream Dip:

5 cups of diced butternut squash
1 medium onion, unpeeled, cut into eights
1 large garlic clove, unpeeled
1 Tb. vegetable oil
eight  5-6-inch flour tortillas
1 cup chopped red bell pepper
1 cup coarsely grated jack cheese
1/2 stick butter, softened

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  In a shallow pan arrange squash, onion, and garlic.  Toss with oil to coat, and roast mixture in oven 30 minutes or until squash is tender.  Take out garlic about halfway through, as it will be done.  Discard peel from onion and garlic.
In a food processor, puree all vegetables with salt and pepper (to taste) until smooth. This mixture can be made ahead.
Spread about one fourth squash puree on each of 4 tortillas and sprinkle each with about one fourth bell pepper and one fourth cheese.  Top each with a plain tortilla, pressing gently together.  Spread each side of quesadillas with 1/2 Tb. of butter.
Heat a griddle over moderately high heat and cook quesadillas until golden, about 3 minutes on each side, transferring to a cutting board.  Cut each quesadilla into 6 or 8 wedges and serve warm.

Chipotle Lime Sour Cream Dip:

1 cup sour cream
1 canned chipotle chili in adobo, minced
2 tsp.s lime juice

Mix it all together until combined.  Chill until ready to use.

A big caesar salad rounds out the meal

It really is a satisfying dinner.  Dessert can be chocolate and vanilla frozen yogurt served with chocolate sauce and strawberries.  This should be eaten in the family room near the fireplace.
By the way, I am have been learning how to play Bridge.  I love it, but it is definitely a challenge.  Anyone else out there currently playing Bridge?  Any tips?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Are Bloggers the New Diarists?

The journal of Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne 

I love the Morgan Library in New York city.  I visit it every time I am there.  As a lover and collector of rare books, the Morgan Library has many attractions for me.  Last year I saw the fabulous Jane Austen exhibition and it was incredible, including a wonderful short film about Austen and her life.

I wish I were in New York right  now because the Morgan Library is having an exhibition I know I would love, "The Diary:  Three Centuries of Private Lives."  In the New York Times, Edward Rothstein reviewed this exhibition and made the following point:  "Spend some time with these diaries,...and you will see how fervently the keepers of journals labor to shape accounts of themselves."  He goes on to describe  some of the highlights of the show:  the diaries of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sir Walter Scott, Einstein, Queen Victoria, Anais Nin, and Thoreau.  Adele Hugo, Victor Hugo's daughter, used scrambled words in her diary to describe her secret love which inspired Truffaut's film "The Secret of Adele H." This film will be screened at the Morgan in April.  "The variety is dizzying," writes Rothstein of the diaries in the exhibition.  "All of these are astonishing presentations, confessions, performances -- often self-conscious and perhaps, occasionally honest."

Queen Victoria's diary about her travels in the Highlands

I  have a confession to make.  I  love reading diaries and letters, my favorite being those of Virginia Woolf.  And I realize that there is often a narrative shape given to famous writers' diaries and letters, because the writers realize that they may be read by the public some day.   But isn't that what we are all doing when we write a journal, diary, or  blog entry, creating a sort of running narrative of our lives, a process that helps us derive meaning out of what we are describing?    The story we compose gives our experience a shape and form, and ultimately some meaning.

There is a freshness and immediacy to the spontaneous diary entries of some famous writers, with the air of a quick note and then dashing off.  And sometimes the entry is simply about the mundane activities of a boring day, which Samuel Pepys, the most famous diarist in English did.  But of course these quotidian entries about what he ate, or an argument he had with his wife were part of a larger tapestry he created with his diaries that included reportage of events such as the 17th-century Great Fire of London, which is on display in this exhibition.  

Virginia Woolf  could dash off an entry about a party she attended in London, or gossip about her friends, but she could also write gems about her art which we are lucky to have today.  She wrote in her diary on January 29, 1920, 

"The day after my birthday; in fact I'm 38.  Well, I've no doubt I'm a great deal happier than I was at 28; and happier than I was yesterday having this afternoon arrived at some idea of a new form for a new novel...My doubt is how far it will enclose the human heart -- Am I sufficiently mistress of my dialogue to net it there?  For I figure that the approach will be entirely different this time; no scaffolding; scarcely a brick to be seen, all crepuscular, but the heart, the passion, humour, everything as bright as fire in the mist."


Is what these diarist have done so very different from blogging?  Don't we all try to wring the meaning out of what we do?  And isn't that the beauty of keeping a journal, a diary, or a blog?  We see patterns, we see unexpected beauty, we see themes...And it's all because we are giving it a narrative shape through language. 

Bloggers are chroniclers, diarists, and essayists.  Some do one better than another, some manage to do an assortment of all three.  What they all seem to want to do is share their pleasure in the movement of life, and also to preserve it for their own future reflection.

Charlotte Bronte's diary (at the Morgan) includes a reaction to a dark and stormy night

So the question is why do we write our blogs?  The desire to chronicle our activities, at least those we judge to be valuable, is one driving force.  Many people want to share their passionate response to physical beauty.  Some want to share insights derived from favorite books or wonderful cultural events.  Others want to tell us stories about their families, the way they live, their travels, even their meals.  They have a need to preserve these experiences by writing them down. Others want to communicate moments of illumination, which can come in a flash and just as quickly leave one's consciousness. The blog captures these.

Why do I like reading diaries?  In the case of someone like Virginia Woolf, it is because she paints scenes, reports events, captures personalities, and evokes the general atmosphere of whatever she is describing in a vivid way.  I get to know her, the people in her world, and the very feel of an era long gone.  And of course she is a brilliant writer.

The same applies to well-written blogs today.  When they are vivid and immediate, I enjoy getting a glimpse into another person's world and the things that inspire and excite them. These feelings can be contagious and can inspire me to try new adventures and aspire to new experiences.

A blog, as well as a diary entry, can be simply a snippet of daily activities.  Most likely the blogs that we want to read will be more than that.  Though there is some value to reading about the day to day activities of diarists or bloggers,  most of us want to be inspired.  And this is what makes blog entries not that different from diary entries; they are personal and sometimes intellectual musings meant to be shared.  It turns out that many of the best diarists were constructing their entries with the knowledge that they too might one day be shared.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Downton Abbey

I can't think of any television show from the 1970's that stands out more vividly in my memory than "Upstairs, Downstairs."  It aired from 1971-1975  and on Sunday nights it filled the living rooms of Anglophiles like me with all things wonderfully English.  I even bought a sofa that looked like the one in the drawing room of the house at 165 Eaton Place in London, the home of the Richard and Lady Marjorie  Bellamy.

"Downton Abbey"

"Downton Abbey," a new mini-series created and written by Julian Fellowes,  premiered last week on Masterpiece Classics and I was thrilled.  It feels reminiscent of "Upstairs, Downstairs," with its depiction of two worlds, that of the servants and that of the aristocratic family that resides in the house.  

"Upstairs, Downstairs"

Lately,  I have once again been immersed in all things English because I have been reading the wonderful "Wait For Me" by Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire.  She is the youngest of the Mitford sisters, Nancy Mitford being the most famous for her books such as "Love in a Cold Climate." Adding this new British television series to my current English studies is a lovely addition.


"Downton Abbey" opens up with the Earl, Robert Crawley and his American heiress wife, Cora and their three daughters getting news of the sinking of the Titanic.  So right away we know where we are, post-Edwardian Britain, 1912, just a few years before WWI, the era of servants and great estates, the land of "Upstairs, Downstairs."  Robert Crawley married his wife for her money many years ago to save the estate, though they have a happy marriage.  But now after the death of the Earl of Grantham with the sinking of the Titanic, a crisis of inheritance threatens to displace the resident Crawley family because Robert Crawley has only three daughters and no son.  It's all about entailment.  A word that springs off the pages of most of Jane Austen's novels and was obviously an issue in 1912.  Because the estate is entailed to Lord Crawley's heir, a distant cousin, the assumption is that when Lord Crawley dies, the bulk of the estate will go to his cousin, rather than his wife and his daughters. Entailment laws required that the inheritance go to the eldest son, and if there was not one, then to the next male relative.

Eldest daughter Lady Mary Crawley

 Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, played by Maggie Smith

 Cora, Countess of Grantham, played by Elizabeth McGovern, and another daughter

Part of the "downstairs" staff

I can't wait to see what happens in the upcoming episodes.


Being immersed in "Wait for Me" by Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire, I have been learning about another great British estate, this one Chatsworth, which is where she lived for 46 years.  The story of this estate and how the duchess and her husband saved it after World War II is fascinating.

As is the story of her family.  Lord and Lady Redesdale had seven children, six girls and one boy.  Nancy Mitford has immortalized this family in her famous books "Love in a Cold Climate" and "The Pursuit of Love."  Being the youngest, Deborah had a unique position in the family to be an observer of her already famous siblings from when she was quite young.  And so Deborah's perspective on this family is a new and valuable one, especially because we get to know her this time.

She describes her arrival in 1920 to this already huge clan as anti-climatic and sees herself as mostly invisible in the light of the rest of the dominating characters in this family.  When the telegram announcing her birth was delivered to her family home, her sister Nancy announced to the others, "We Are Seven."  Then Nancy wrote to her mother "How disgusting of the poor darling to go and be a girl."  And yet, as we discover in her memoir, she came into her own and led a fascinating life.  She married Andrew Cavendish, son of the 10th Duke of Devonshire, and counted amongst her friends and acquaintances major movers and shakers in politics and the arts.  For example, she was good friends with the Kennedys, particularly Jack and his sister Kick, and she writes about attending President Kennedy's presidential inauguration in 1961.  (By the way, this week on January 20th is the 50th anniversary of that inauguration.)

The Mitford family

Deborah Mitford, debutante, 1938

Marriage of Deborah Mitford and Lord Cavendish, son of the 10th Duke of Devonshire, 1941

Chatsworth House, home of Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire

As I make my way through this book, I am enjoying the story of the how she and her husband rescued Chatsworth and restored it to its current glory.  She grew up in the shadow of her famous sisters, but the identity she forged for herself was quintessentially English.  She loved hunting, sports, her horses.  And part of that English identity was the love of the land and this house.   And not surprisingly, she is also a very good writer.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Sublime Noise

In 1910 E. M. Forster wrote in the novel "Howard's End, "

" It will be generally admitted that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated the ear of man."

I will give him that, but on Sunday I think I may have hear the second most sublime, Beethoven's 7th Symphony, played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel at the Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles.

I am certainly far from an expert on classical music, but I can definitely express my emotional reaction to this piece. During the second movement, I felt a surge of emotion that brought tears to my eyes and could only be described as feeling that I was in the presence of greatness.  Greatness in terms of the music, the conducting, and the musicians. Something brilliant and profound was happening on the stage of the Disney Hall.  And as E.M. Forster wrote about Beethoven's Fifth, I would say about Beethoven's Seventh, while listening to it "The passion of your life becomes more vivid."  (By the way, that line alone  makes me so want to go back and reread "Howard's End," one of my very favorite books!)

This feeling continued until the end, and I felt the entire audience shared my bliss.  The experience was inspiring and I left realizing I need to listen to more classical music.  My first choice is to go to concerts and hear it live, which I do whenever possible.  But  I am also determined, as a New Year's goal, to listen to the music of the great composers at home.  Last night I played Beethoven's Fifth to remind myself what Forster was talking about.  And I listened again to the Seventh.  How wonderful it was to have the music coursing through the house.

By the way, this goal of mine to listen to the music of the great composers should be easier now that Anthony Tommasini, music critic for The New York, has started a series of articles addressing the question:  Who are the 10 greatest classical music composers in history?  He will focus on Western classical music.  So I will anxiously await his conclusion and excitedly read the articles he writes along the way.

He made a good point in his article "The Greatest" in The New York Times on Sunday when he noted that four of the possible ten that he chooses --  Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven --  may all have worked in Vienna during a period of roughly 75 years, from 1750 to 1825.  He asks "What was going on in that town at that tine to foster such awesome creativity"?   I wonder the same thing.   Today, he wrote his second column of the series addressing that question, "The Big Four of Vienna."

I also find it interesting that Sunday's performance at the Disney Hall, which also featured a piece by John Adams and a symphony by Leonard Bernstein, was simulcast in 450 movie theaters in the United States and Canada.   These screenings were heavily attended, according to Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times.

I am inspired!

Photos from Los Angeles Times

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New Year in Big Sur

I celebrated the New Year in the most unexpected place, Big Sur, California.  I went with my family to stay at the Ventana Inn in Big Sur for the weekend and even though it stormed and was rainy, windy, and cold, we felt enveloped and cocooned by the hotel's luxurious and rustic charms.  It was truly our "shelter from the storm."  We spent two cozy days reading, eating, talking, taking photos, and being inspired and awestruck by breathtaking views, foggy roads, constant rain or drizzle, and howling winds. ( I kept on thinking of Haworth Parsonage in Yorkshire, England where Emily and Charlotte Bronte lived and wondered if it sounded like this on the moors?  If so, that explains a lot about their writing.)


Going to Big Sur feels like going back in time, to the seventies.  I spent part of my honeymoon there, (we camped!)  and because I hadn't stayed there for many, many years, I had no idea how good the restaurants were and how luxurious the accommodations.  The Ventana Inn has undergone a major renovation and it is a beautiful and welcoming place to stay.  The Big Sur is filled with breathtakingly beautiful natural scenery, great food, inviting and quirky shops and galleries, and that ever present cosmic and bohemian vibe that flows through the area.  Highway One is the dramatic and beautiful road that takes you  there and with its twists and turns and dramatic cliffs, it adds to the remote and mysterious charms of the place.  Just getting there is an accomplishment!

Ventana Inn

Our room

Sitting area

Lots of time spent in the lobby in front of the fire in this position, while the wind howled and the rain poured outside.

The Ventana Inn has a very cozy lobby with two fireplaces that are always blazing with logs that smell so good.  We spent many hours there reading, drinking cafe mochas, talking, and of course gazing into the fire.  Around 3:00 p.m. the space began to fill up as guests found a cozy nook and waited for the wine and cheese to be brought out at 4:00 p.m.  I was surprised by the number of people that were spending the New Year in Big Sur.  There was a general sense of well-being and conviviality that imbued this meeting place.  We talked to our fellow guests, discovered mutual interests and new books to read.   Everyone was thrilled to be in Big Sur for the New Year where the biggest responsibility was keeping the fire going and choosing what to wear with your blue jeans to dinner on New Year's Eve.  

When we could tear ourselves away from the place, we had some memorable meals. New Year's Eve dinner was at the Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant.  The Ventana Inn provided a shuttle to take us there, which was a good things considering the weather. The ceilings were festooned with garlands and the restaurant glowed with candlelight. The place was festive and hopping.  We ate homemade brown breads served with sweet butter and Himalayan sea salt, salads made from organic greens, delicious pizzas topped with butternut squash and prosciutto, and trout wrapped in bacon.  One memorable dessert involved sticky toffee sauce.

Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant during the day

On January 1st,  we went to the iconic Nepenthe restaurant for lunch.  Perched high above the Pacific,  Nepenthe Restaurant was opened in 1949 and is steeped in history and legend.  Considered a mecca for poets, artists, travelers, and seekers of all kinds, it has a bohemian vibe that has never changed.  Not to mention drop dead views, especially if you sit outside, though we were warmly tucked inside on this rainy day.   Movies have been shot there, such as "The Sandpiper" in 1965 with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton; it is a place not to be missed.

Scene from "The Sandpiper" filmed at Nepenthe Restaurant

Main dining room at Nepenthe Restaurant

One of the many gorgeous views from the restaurant

After lunch we wandered leisurely through Phoenix shop which is located next to Nepenthe.  It is filled with unique and exotic treasures that feel so Big Sur.

Phoenix store adjacent to the restaurant

Quilted bedding from India

An eye-catching display, this a little holiday tree

Another vignette that catches the eye

After lingering at the shop, we drove to the Henry Miller Memorial Library, a cultural center devoted to Miller's life and work.  Henry Miller moved to Big Sur from France in 1940.  He made it his home.  He wrote "Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch," a collection of fond sketches about the area.   Big Sur was an artist's haven.  It  provided inspiration to photographers, painters, writers, and musicians.  Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac chronicled the area in books, and Ansel Adams and Edward Weston captured Big Sur's beauty on film.  Robinson Jeffers described Big Sur in his poetry. 

That night we ate at the Post Ranch Inn, a beautiful hotel and restaurant, which seems to float hundreds of feet above the coastline, with magnificent views during the day, and awe-inspiring drama at night, where you feel as if you are dining amongst the stars.

Dining room at Post Ranch Inn surrounded by windows looking out to night sky

Elegant table set for dinner at Post Ranch Inn 

The next morning, this is what it looked like outside.

But we were warmly snug in Deetjen's restaurant in the Big Sur Inn for breakfast

 Table for two in a corner

The tables were candlelit in the morning

We sat next to this cozy nook

Pot-belly stove 

As we drove home to Los Angeles, we felt refreshed and restored after a wonderful New Year's weekend in Big Sur.

One of the vistas on our drive home

"The place itself is so overwhelmingly bigger, greater, than anyone could hope to make it, that it engenders a humility and reverence...There being nothing to improve on in the surroundings, the tendency is to set about improving oneself."  --  Henry Miller writing about Big Sur in 1957 

I can't think of a better thought for starting the New Year or a better place than Big Sur for inspiring self-improvement and New Year's resolutions.