Bonfire of the Vanities / Miso Rosemary Beans on Toast

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This week’s recipe: Miso Rosemary Beans on Toast

I recently finished reading The Bonfire of the Vanities, which was published a little over 30 years ago. I had read some of Tom Wolfe’s non-fiction and was familiar with his unique style, but I was still blown away by this novel. I think part of it was that I listened to it in audio–serious props to narrator Joe Barrett, who did an amazing job–which both brought the characters to life and allowed me to ignore some of Wolfe’s more annoying stylistic tics.

The plot is relatively simple. Our (anti)hero is Sherman McCoy, a bond trader and self-styled “Master of the Universe.” He has a palatial apartment on Park Avenue, a wife and daughter, and a mistress named Maria. One day, he picks Maria up from the airport and accidentally makes a wrong turn, ending up in the South Bronx. They’re stopped on a ramp by two black teenagers and, assuming that they’re about to be mugged, they skirmish with them and then drive away, hitting one of the boys in the process. The boy, Henry Lamb, falls into a coma, and his case becomes a cause célèbre in the black community–an innocent boy at death’s door because of a hit-and-run from a white couple in an expensive Mercedes. Other characters include Larry Kramer, the vain and bitter assistant district attorney assigned to prosecute the case; Peter Fallow, the alcoholic English tabloid journalist who reports on it; Reverend Bacon, the Al Sharpton-esque race hustler who capitalizes on it; Myron Kovitsky, the fierce, short-tempered judge who decides it; and the various other lawyers, criminals, activists, bleeding hearts, Wall Street traders, and denizens of high society that made up 1980s New York City.

Black, white, Jewish, WASPy, Irish, Italian–nobody escapes Wolfe’s satirical eye, no one is sacred. (Oh, the think pieces and hot takes and righteous Twitter rage this book would generate if it were published today.) No one comes out of this book looking good, except maybe Judge Kovitsky (I suppose Sherman’s six-year-old daughter is fine too). In a different book, Kramer might have been the heroic prosecutor who seeks justice for the disenfranchised. Fallow might have been a dogged pursuer of the truth in the mold of Woodward and Bernstein, trying to get to the bottom of a story that the broader society thinks is unimportant. Even the unlikable Sherman might have been more of a tragic figure, a victim of fate and circumstance whose punishment outweighed his crime. All of these characterizations are, in a way, accurate, but we don’t see them this way because they don’t even see themselves that way. As the book goes on, Sherman comes to realize how his life of privilege and entitlement leads him to make spectacularly self-destructive decisions out in the real world. Kramer finds his job depressing and only puts effort into it when he’s trying to impress a pretty juror. Fallow keeps lucking into scoops despite his laziness and manifest disdain for the story. Wolfe is unsparing in unearthing each character’s foibles and hypocrisies, and much as I loved the book, it does leave a sour taste in your mouth. But that’s a small price to pay for such an honest, well-written, and gosh-darned entertaining book.

In some ways, the story resonates very strongly in an age of extreme wealth inequality and Black Lives Matter. (A character literally says that the Lamb case is going to revolve around whether or not a black life matters to society.) But it’s also an interesting historical portrait of New York at a very different time. I understand in an academic sense that New York in the 70s and 80s was a cauldron of drugs, crime, and racial anxiety. My parents moved here in the mid-70s and everyone thought they were insane. My mom talks about how, when my sister was born in 1981, she was the only baby on the Upper West Side, and all the prostitutes and junkies would coo over her stroller as my parents wheeled her down Amsterdam Avenue. But of course, from the vantage point of today, they had incredible foresight. Today, you can’t walk down a street on the Upper West Side without getting bumped off the sidewalk by strollers. People pay top dollar to live in neighborhoods that their parents and grandparents worked hard to escape, and many more are being squeezed out of neighborhoods where their families lived for generations. The great dark hordes didn’t rise up and overrun Park Avenue; instead, Whole Foods has colonized Harlem. I don’t know if the great novel of post-Giuliani/post-Bloomberg New York is being written right now, but I hope that it’s half as astute, insightful, and sharp as Bonfire of the Vanities.

So anyway, here’s some beans on toast. This is such a pretty dish, one that makes me feel like I’m some slender French lady entertaining guests in my sun-dappled Provence kitchen. Why it makes me feel like that, I don’t know, but I’m going to chase the feeling. It’s also super-easy to throw together and makes for delicious leftovers.

Miso Rosemary Beans on Toast

From Tending the Table

INGREDIENTS

2 tablespoons olive oil
4 sprigs fresh rosemary
4 cloves roasted garlic
2 tablespoons miso
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 teaspoons honey
2 teaspoons mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups cooked navy beans
2 slices sourdough toast
Red pepper flakes

INSTRUCTIONS 

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium high heat. Add the rosemary and fry for a minute or so, until bright green and crispy. Remove from the pan and set aside.

Meanwhile, combine the roasted garlic, miso, apple cider vinegar, honey, mustard and salt in a blender and puree on high until completely smooth. Pour the mixture into the pan with the rosemary infused oil and simmer, whisking constantly, until thickened and reduced slightly.  Add the beans and toss to coat.

To serve, top each slice of toast with a generous serving of beans, some crispy rosemary and red pepper flakes.

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Aziz Ansari / Dad’s Magic Soup

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This week’s recipe: Dad’s Magic Soup

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young woman in possession of a blog must have a hot take on the Aziz Ansari story. In this case, it’s not such a hot take, since the story broke on Saturday, a veritable eternity in Internet time. Really, all of the takes have been took. I come down firmly on the side that says that this was nothing worse than classic bad sex; that Ansari was undoubtedly sleazy and aggressive but didn’t do anything that warranted having embarrassing details of his personal life put out there for all to see; and that we need to encourage women to be more vocal about what they want (or don’t want) and teach men to be more aware of their partners’ body language.

Even though I think it was wrong to publish this piece, I appreciate the conversations that it’s generated and the way it’s made me challenge my own thinking. I was talking about it with a friend, and we both agreed that the author laid on the naiveté a little thick. I said that any woman in her 20s with some dating/sexual experience who pursued a celebrity, went on a date with him, went back to his house for drinks, got naked with him, and gave and received oral sex (twice!) should have seen what was coming next.

But isn’t that blaming the victim? We’ve all heard, and abhorred, victim blaming. She wore a short skirt, what did she think would happen? She had a drink, what did she think would happen? She was out alone late at night, what did she think would happen? It’s the oldest trope in the book, literally. Commentators on the biblical story of Dinah blame her for getting raped because, the text says, she “went out among the women of the land.” She left the house, the commentators say, what did she think would happen?

Now, I don’t think that Grace was a victim of anything worse than a bad date. Ansari is famous, of course, but he’s not her boss and has no authority over her career. Dude also weighs about 90 pounds so I don’t think physical intimidation was a likely issue. There was nothing keeping her there except the social pressure that women feel to please men (this clip sure hasn’t aged well). When she finally verbalized her unhappiness, Ansari called her a cab and later apologized to her without any hint of defensiveness. It really does seem like a miscommunication.

My empathy is limited here because I’ve been in scenarios where I’ve hooked up with a guy and very clearly and firmly told him that I’m not interested in having sex that night. None of them reacted at all badly, and I just can’t see why Grace couldn’t do the same. But I’m not her and I don’t want to judge someone whose situation I only know from a badly written article. So I wonder if the only way out of the “what did she expect?” trap is to change the expectation. As somewhat of a prude, I’ve often commented to more adventurous friends how crazy it is that, in modern heterosexual dating, first you exchange bodily fluids in an incredibly intimate act that could possibly result in a child that would bond you two together for the rest of your lives…and then you get to know each other! What if the expectation was that a modern city gal like Grace wouldn’t have sex on the first date? I don’t want to go back to the days where a woman’s virtue was considered lost if she had sex before marriage, but I wonder if it’s a good idea to pump the brakes on first- or second-date sex until we have, as a society, a better handle on what constitutes consent. Maybe that’s controversial or sex-negative, but I don’t think it’s controversial or sex-negative to say that sex with someone that you care about or love or at least respect is better than the alternative, and can help you avoid unfortunate incidents like the one between Grace and Ansari. I don’t know how you’d finesse it so that people who genuinely wanted to have sex on the first date wouldn’t be considered loose but I’m not the empress of the universe so I have no way to implement this idea anyway. It’s just a thought!

So anyway, here’s some soup. This is my absolute favorite soup in the world. I call this Dad’s magic soup because a) my dad makes it all the time and b) it is magic. What is magic about it? A) the taste, which is rich and creamy and amazing, and b) the fact that you can put pretty much any combination of veggies in it and it still turns out tasting the same, i.e. delicious. It’s the perfect soup to make when you have a bunch of veggies in your crisper that are about to turn, and while I never make the croutons because I am lazy, I can tell you that they taste utterly heavenly.

Dad’s Magic Soup, aka Vegetable Cream Soup

Adapted (slightly) from The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews

Ingredients

The vegetables that go into the soup vary according to season and taste, but two
ingredients, in addition to the onion and herbs, remain constant. These are potatoes
and cooked dried beans, which give the soup body and that wonderful, creamy texture.
¼ cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 medium onion
2 pounds of a variety of vegetables such as green beans, zucchini, yellow squash, carrots, celery, turnip, potatoes, leek, spinach, green peas, all trimmed and coarsely chopped
2 large sprigs Italian parsley
2 tablespoons shredded fresh or 1½ teaspoons dried basil leaves
1 tablespoon salt
1/8 teaspoon crushed red
pepper
2 cups cooked dried beans (see below)
5 cups cold water
2 cups fried or toasted croutons
(see below)
Instructions

In a large pot, heat oil and lightly brown garlic in it. Discard garlic and add onion. Lightly brown onion; add all the remaining vegetables and herbs but not the cooked dried beans. Add salt and red pepper and cook, stirring, 5 or 6 minutes, to allow all of the seasonings to blend with the vegetables. Add cooked dried beans and 5 cups of cold water and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer, covered, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Strain through a sieve, or blend in a blender or processor or with an immersion blender. Serve hot or cold according to the season, with fried or toasted croutons.

Cooked dried beans: To make 2 cups of cooked dried beans, start with 1 cup of dried Great Northern beans (about ½ pound). Spread on a plate and pick out any stones and very small or cracked beans. Rinse twice in warm water. Place in a large pot and add 1 quart of hot water and 1 teaspoon of salt. Bring to a rapid boil. Reduce heat to lowest point and simmer, covered, for ½ hour. Add 1 fresh sage leaf (or ¼ teaspoon of dried sage leaves – not powder) and ½ clove garlic, husk on, and simmer for ½ to 1 hour longer. When cooked, drain. The beans can be made a day in advance and refrigerated.
Croutons: Dice four slices of hearty white bread into cubes (Dad uses Healthy Delites Organic French Country bread from Fairway). For fried croutons, heat ¼ cup vegetable oil in a large skillet until quite hot but not smoky. Drop diced bread into it and fry quickly, stirring, until golden brown. Transfer to paper towel to drain. For toasted croutons, placed diced bread with no oil on a baking sheet. Toast under the broiler for approximately 2 minutes, shaking the baking sheet frequently. Remove from heat and let cool thoroughly, stirring from time to time.