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Tex and the City: Books for a Cause

Today on Tex and the City: A good cause reinforces Jon Paul’s love of hard covers over e-books.  Guest stars: Daisy Martinez, Patti LuPone (sort of).

Last night, in the midst of a passionate Upper West Side crowd, Patti LuPone was staring at me with an eager, come hither grin.  As I approached, a cutish guy caught my eye, “You’re the first one to show interest all night.”  He was one of the volunteer’s at the Goddard Riverside Community Center 24th Annual New York Book Fair.  And unlike celebrity chef Daisy Martinez who was signing books in-person across the room, Patti had sent a facsimile of herself courtesy of the cover of her book, Patti LuPone: A MemoirWhat must have the contentious discussions been like to come up with that clever title?  Still, after a product plug on Glee from the impossibly precious Blaine, I couldn’t resist taking a peek inside.  After all, it was for a good cause.

Every year the weekend before Thanksgiving, the Goddard Center hosts this fundraising fair featuring 50% off some of the latest and most buzzed about books donated by various publishing companies.  And I can see why they participate every year.  The Goddard Center is an outstanding organization with 27 programs in 21 sites on the Upper West Side and in West Harlem focusing on children, youth and families; homeless people; older adults; and advocacy and tenant assistance.  Thanks to the Whole Foods Market Upper West Side sponsorship of the event, Chef scored me a pass to the gala preview where I shopped for best sellers without breaking the bank.

For Chef, I elbowed my way through the Cooking section picking up Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home and Bouchon at way under market value, while cautioning other buyers that his French Laundry cookbook was really only for the extremely seriously trained culinary professionals.  For myself, I grabbed Mark Bittman’s latest The Food Matters Cook Book.  In the Hot Titles section, I nearly tackled someone to pick up a hard cover cop of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, even though I just ordered it on Kindle.  I’m still having trouble getting my head around reading “important” novels in electronic form.  I have the same issues about wanting to have real copies of “quirky” books, which is why I probably nabbed John Waters’ Role ModelsSuper Freakonomics, on the other hand, is a book I would happily read electronically, but not economist-turned-Chef, so I caved for him.  We even picked a Christmas present for our nieces, a sweet children’s book Me, Frida about Frida Kahlo finding herself and following her dream when she moved to San Francisco with Diego.  The book jacket says the book “encourages young readers to believe in themselves so they can make their own dreams soar.”  Hmm, maybe I’ll hang onto it.

Back at the Entertainment section, I was just putting down Patti’s book, not too impressed with the over-the-top self-congratulatory opening.  Then the Goddard Center Broadway Babies took the “stage” and belted out “Give My Regards to Broadway.”  It was a Glee-come-true, and I decided that Patti should come home with me.

On the subway lugging home all the heavy purchases, I couldn’t thinking about Kindle—hoping e-book craze never puts this cause out-of-business.

Grab your own Patti or Frida at the Goddard Riverside Community Center 24th Annual New York Book Fair, 593 Columbus Avenue @ 88th Street

Saturday, November 20, 2010, 10am to 6pm
Sunday, November 21, 2010, 11am-5pm

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Attention Reader-Shoppers!

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul serves up some Whole Foods value to capture the attention of reader-guests at a book party for 85A.

It’s official—Michael Cunningham is my Writer-Boyfriend.  In our house, Chef and I use “boyfriend” to designate someone on whom we have an enormous crush of respect.  Cheyenne Jackson is Chef’s Broadway-Boyfriend, while Raúl Esparaza is mine.  Secretly, I’ve harbored a thing for Michael, best known as author of The Hours, since I started reading his treatise on the pleasures of Provincetown called Land’s End.  I read it every summer—and nearly came unglued when I spotted the author just two doors down from the house we’d rented in P-town at a Fourth of July party he’d detailed in the book.  At that time, I couldn’t bring myself to even way at him I was so starstruck.

But after Michael’s column in yesterday’s New York Times, if I saw him now, I’d give him a hug and a kiss.  His take on writers and their readers should be required reading for every author.  He explains that in his writing classes at university, he asks his students whom they are writing for?  When they invariably answer, “themselves,” he gives them this lecture:

I tell them that I understand—that I go home every night, make an elaborate cake and eat it all by myself.  By which I meant that cakes, and books, are meant to be presented to others.  And further, that books (unlike cakes) are deep, elaborate interactions between writers and readers, albeit separated by time and space.

I remind them, as well, that no one wants to read their stories.  There are a lot of other stories out there, and by now, in the 21st century, there’s been such an accumulation of literature that few of us will live long enough to read all the great stories and novels, never mind the pretty good ones.  Not to mention the fact that we, as readers, are busy.

We have large difficult lives.  We have, variously, jobs to do, spouses and children to attend to, errands to run, friends to see; we need to keep up with current events; we have gophers in our gardens; we are taking extension courses in French or wine tasting or art appreciation; we are looking for evidence that our lovers are cheating on us; we are wondering why in the world we agreed to have 40 people over on Saturday night; we are worried about global warming; we are TiVo-ing five or six of our favorite shows.

What the writer is saying, essentially, is this: Make room in all that for this.  Stop what you’re doing and read this.  It had better be apparent, from the opening line, that we’re offering readers something worth their while.

Amen, Boyfriend Michael.  Which is why I was so gratified that yesterday afternoon friends took time to come to our house and meet writer Kyle Thomas Smith, author of the new book 85A.  My full review appeared on the blog yesterday, but suffice it to say that I believe this is a book deserving of our busy attention, and that to Michael’s point grabs the reader from the opening line, “Every detention, every chip of glass piercing my forearm from the inside, every minute the 85A is late drives me that much closer to London.  I repeat: London, London…”

To help hold the attention—and palettes—of our guests, Chef and I worked to theme the food we served at the party to plotlines in the book.  Whole Foods Market Upper West Side offered to help us out, but threw out another challenge—could we do it on a budget of $100?  Please, as a frequent Whole Foods shopper, and a team-member-by-marriage, I know all about navigating my shopping cart to find the best values for entertaining on a budget!  Here are my tips and menu:

  1. The Whole Deal.  On your way into the store, pick up a copy of this newsletter with recipes and coupons inside.  It will point out some items you might overlook—for my cheese platter I got a 350g wheel of imported Isigny  Ste. Mere French Brie for just $6.99.  Always a crowd pleaser—and I would have totally overlooked at the cheese counter had it not been for the write-up.  I also selected a NY State Toma Pepato cheese (Seamus, the main character, winds up in NYC) and a Cotswold cheese from Britain (Seamus dreams of London).  Serve with some WFM 365 brand Organic Water Crackers.
  2. Hummus.  One of my first Big Apple roommates Shannon told me, “It’s not a NYC party without hummus.”  And I’ve always lived by those words.  In Dallas, we never had hummus—but here, I’m addicted to it.  We decided that Seamus, the main character in 85A, probably had never tasted hummus either until he walked into the hippie bistro in the book.  While you can buy Whole Foods Market’s 365 brand hummus which I found delicious, Chef told me an even better value was making it from scratch.  You can find chickpeas in the bulk section of the store—the night before the party cook for several hours in a crockpot, cool overnight.  Day of party put in Vita-Mix or professional grade blender add in olive oil, fresh lemon juice, garlic powder—really whatever flavors float your boat.  Voila, it’s a party.
  3. Chips & Dip & Veggies.  I like to mix the 365 brand Blue Corn and Yellow Corn chips together.  Slicing veggies yourself cuts down on the pre-packaged costs—some zucchini and carrots and peppers will do.  The WFM brand Artichoke Jalapeno dip has a nice kick to it.
  4. Cucumber Sandwiches.  Funny, but these things fly off the platter.  And perfect for a book starring a kid dreaming of England.  Buy white bread (yes, they have it at Whole Foods), cut off the edges, butter the bread, and place small slices of cucumbers (take out the seeds).
  5. Dessert.  I always like to serve a little something special about 30 minutes before the party is scheduled to end—it’s a sweet reminder to guests that the soiree should be winding down.  I wanted to do something apple related since Seamus ends up in the Big Apple, and they were stacking up on my counter from our weekly CSA.  Mark Bittman to the rescue.  Core the apples, stuff with brown sugar, dates, raisins and walnuts.  Top each with a slab of butter.  If you have some dessert wine around, pour a little over the top.  Place in dish and microwave for 5 minutes or so.  Turn and baste in their juices—add more everything if you desire.  Cut up and serve in a big bowl.
  6. Sodas.  In addition to seltzer, I like to spice up the drinks display with a  few of WFM 365 Italian Sodas.  My favorites are Blood Orange and Lemon—very refreshing, and a festive alternative for guests who don’t drink alcohol.
  7. Wine.  The Whole Foods Market Upper West Side has a Wine Store next door that has a tremendous selection for terrific value—my selections are all under $10.  My go-to afternoon event wine is the Opala Vinho Verde from Portugal—it’s fruity, not too sweet, and has some light bubbles giving it a party feel.  For red, try the Vida Organica Malbec from Argentina—just enough punch to hold its own with the spicy dip.

So grab some Whole Deals at Whole Foods and eat up—and read up—on 85A.  Trust me, it will grab your attention and never let go.

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Kitchen Knightmares: Quick (Down Home) Cassoulet

Today on Alphabet City: JP returns to Kitchen Knightmares cooking Quick “Down Home” Cassoulet courtesy of Mark Bittman

As life settled back into a routine in the New Year, it was time for me to live up to my commitment and get back into Wednesday cooking mode for Chef.  So last night marked my return to the Kitchen Knightmares arena.

My new special advisor in this endeavor is Mark Bittman.  I’ve always liked Mark’s take on food (and not just because his daughter turned up on the 4th of July with a friend of mine at our summer rental in Provincetown a couple of years ago).  His “Minimalist” approach chronicled weekly in the New York Times always makes sense to me, sort of a more approachable Michael Pollan.

His cookbook Kitchen Express is right up my alley—recipes arranged seasonally so you are using the best ingredients.  Even better, Mark wants cooking to be uncomplicated—so there are no exact measurements in the recipes, and each one should take under 20 minutes.

Quick (Down Home) Cassoulet (“down home” is my addition—you’ll see why)

As Mark explains, “This version is far from strictly traditional, but it maintains the spirit of the original and takes less than 20 minutes.”

Here was my process: sautéed some chopped onion, carrots, celery and garlic in olive oil for a couple of minutes.  Then I added some sliced turkey sausage (leaner than traditional).  After a couple of minutes I added a drained can of blacked eye peas (my Southern touch which I’m sure would have the French rolling their eyes; you can use any white beans you want, but these peas are a Texas New Year’s tradition so I figured I’d throw ’em in), a drained can of butter beans, a can of crushed tomatoes.  Throw in a bay leaf, some fresh thyme and salt and pepper.  It simmered for a little while to cook the vegetables.  And then I served with a sprinkling of bread crumbs.  See how easy that is to follow?  Hard to go wrong.

Only downside to Mark’s recipes is there is no nutritional information—that comes from Mark’s belief that if you generally eat correctly, you don’t need to watch that stuff.  But since Chef and I are trying to get back on the weight-loss wagon, I had to total up the calories myself.  Good news: one serving is about 300 calories!

Result?  At Judge’s Table, Chef agreed it was delicious, and that it warmed the tummy in the dead cold of winter.

I’ll invite Mark back to be my cooking coach anytime.

Note: Live on the Upper West Side?  Make sure to stop by the Whole Foods on 97th and Columbus on Wednesday nights around 6pm and check out Chef’s “tasting night.”

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