Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Trio of Favorite Things

Mother's Day weekend involved three wonderful things--movie night with my boys, Jane Austen and a culinary creation so sublime that I'm daydreaming about leftovers at nine in the morning.

Last summer we started a tradition of Family Movie Night on Friday nights. These boys forget to tie their laces, change their underwear, make their beds, wipe their bottoms . . . but they never forget a Family Movie Night. Sometimes they start asking about it on Monday. Last weekend we went to How to Train Your Dragon. 2D.

I'm not sure if this movie is for everyone. It was surprisingly violent, at least in a cartoon dragon-y sort of way. The Jedi loved it, even laughing uproariously in parts that I worried would scare them. My gripe with Dreamworks movies (a la Shrek) is that they are generally laden with pop culture references and mild innuendo in an effort to interest parents. How to Train Your Dragon, however, avoids this stupid trap and instead just tells a great story. I loved every part of this movie--the action, the father-son angst, the coming of age bit, the puppy love story--but mostly I loved the dragon. "Toothless" is the sweetest/most terrifying creature in recent imagination. This movie is great family fare. If your kids are old enough/willing to wear the glasses, there were a few scenes in this that would have been completely awesome 3D.

And if the wonderful Astrid doesn't inspire a whole line of Gothic-Viking-Chic this fall, I will be very surprised.

I downloaded a reading of Northanger Abbey onto my iPod last weekend and spent my paper route with Jane Austen's snarky voice in my ear.

But is she too snarky in Northanger?

I know that Northanger Abbey is meant to spoof the Gothic novels that were gaining so much popularity the same time that Austen wrote. She does this rather effectively. In my mind, however, Austen is spoofing far more than the Gothic novel. She is also writing a gentle reproof of romance novels in the way that she characterizes her heroine, and she warns the reader before she takes the protagonist down any path--reassuring the reader that she isn't going to break the expected mold. Catherine Morland is as bland as any heroine anywhere in literature. I can't decide if Austen's point is that even a girl totally average in every respect can have her own kind of adventure, or if her point is that what seems adventurous in a moment is really just entirely mediocre and worth mocking.

Poor Catherine. Her chief charm in attracting her hero is that in adoring him, she becomes adorable. He is funny and sarcastic, when he isn't working hard at forming her opinions, but she misses almost all of it. He likes her for her childlike demeanor, un-sophistication and modesty. I think he is hoping that if he gets her young then he can train her up right. Yuck.

This is one of Austen's last-published novels, and my latest listening of it made me think that her writing tone is tired, jaded and deeply cynical. I was surprised to learn that it was her first written novel. The brilliant Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility are not, therefore, earlier on the spectrum of her biting wit, but are instead a pulling back of Austen's natural inclination to tease, mock and parody. Northanger Abbey has all of the bite and very little of the charm of her more famous works.

I can appreciate the bits that parody the Gothic novels, but Austen's mockery seems to stem from the fact that the gruesome only exists in run-away imagination and doesn't in any way reflect any situation that could actually happen. And yet, two generations after her publication, Jack the Ripper terrorized the streets of London. As lovely as Austen's world is, her's is the truly imaginary one.

As narrator, Austen says some interesting things in defense of the novel and its importance, while complaining that boring authors of history, etc. got all the legitimacy and pay. There is something to be said for this: Austen was paid ten pounds for this novel. A pittance even then. Her brother published it posthumously, as the family was in abject poverty; a situation that might have been entirely avoided if a much younger Austen had not once rejected a wealthy suitor. Even the poverty-stricken Jane couldn't help but appreciate that irony as she lay dying.

As for my Mother's Day dinner, I cooked it myself. If this sounds lame, please realize that this is exactly as I wanted it. I whipped up an amazing dinner, created a huge mess, and didn't do a single dish. Bliss.

Here is what we had:

Chicken Florentine Fonduta
Spring Greens (from the garden)
Lemon Rosemary Bread
Rhubarb Crumble with French Vanilla Ice Cream

I will only give the recipe for the first. The second is one of Plantboy's delicious salads including every vegetable available in my fridge or garden; I've posted Lemon Rosemary bread before, and if you haven't made it by now then there is no hope for you; I modified the crisp recipe so heavily that it doesn't really bear writing down. The biggest difference in rhubarb crumble as opposed to an apple or berry one, is that you need to find a recipe that makes some kind of super sweet batter mixed with the rhubarb. I believe the one I used is a modification of one that Desmama posted a year or two ago? I forget.

But here is the piece de resistance:

Serves 4

2 large chicken breasts, pounded to uniform thickness
Olive Oil
3 cloves garlic
2 shallots
2 TBSP butter
3/4 cup apple juice
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup heavy cream
4-6 ounces of some kind of Italian cheese (like fontina or parmesan) or a blend that isn't too heavy on mozarella
Spinach and/or asparagus for four
Short, rough pasta for four (like penne or radiatori or farfalle)

Cook lightly salted chicken in olive oil one medium heat until browned on both sides and cooked through. Pull out of pan and set aside. Add butter to pan with chopped shallots and garlic. Saute over medium heat until they are translucent and soft. At this point, the smell in your house will be so fabulous that you might need to pick yourself up off the ground.

Add stock and juice to the pan and turn the heat up to medium high. Whisk it to deglaze the bottom of the pan. Boil about three minutes until the liquid reduces by half. Reduce heat to medium and whisk in the cup of cream. Allow the mixture to boil until it further reduces and thickens slightly. Stir often. Add cheese and wisk until it is all melted. If the sauce is too thick or stringy, add another 1/4 cup of juice. Keep the sauce covered on low, stirring every few minutes.

While the sauce simmers, put two pots of water on to boil and cut up chicken. Return the chicken to the pan and coat it with sauce. In one pot of boiling water, cook the pasta according to package directions for al dente. Put a steamer on top of the second pot and add loose, frozen spinach into it until warmed through; or steam the tender parts of the asparagus with the woodiest bits cut off. The veggies will only take about five minutes. On Sunday I had both kinds of veggies and it is impossible for me to say which tasted the best. They were both so good. Of course, if you sub the spinach for asparagus, you can't really call this dish chicken "florentine" as that designation is reserved for Italian chicken dishes with spinach in them.

Layer pasta, vegetables, and sauce on each plate or in each pasta bowl. Sprinkle a few pine nuts on top if you are feeling especially Mormet. Wow. So good. I found this picture on line for a very similar recipe. Mine was prettier.

The crumble was a lovely, sweet and tart finish to a wonderful meal. Those chocolate lava cakes wouldn't have been bad either . . . .

I was going to post about getting older as tomorrow is my birthday. This one feels like a milestone in many ways, but this post is already lengthy enough. I will think of you tomorrow as I take a slice of red velvet cake around to my local friends. This might have to do for the rest of you:


Janssen said...

I need rhubarb badly. Also, I will repent of my wicked ways and make that bread.

FoxyJ said...

We started a Friday movie night tradition and the kids also love it and never forget. It is hard to find good quality movies that are appropriate for kids (I still haven't let mine see Shrek or most Dreamworks stuff). I have heard a lot of good things about How to Tame Your Dragon so I think we'll have to go see it sometime. Last week we watched A Goofy Movie and I remembered how much I liked it (and it's a great flashback to the mid-90s).

That food looks awesome! And I read Northanger Abbey in an English class focused on romance addiction and critiques of the novel--sadly I don't remember a lot about it, but from what I remember your critiques feel right to me :)

Jenny said...

We are soul sisters.
I made my dinner of choice for Mother's Day as well, and left the mess for the non-mothers to clean up. Bliss.

Desmama said...

Someone crunched off all my rhubarb growing outside my front door. Right down to the nub. Also, they ate my tulips in the same garden. So not amused by that. Because that rhubarb crunch suddenly looks perfect right now . . . at 8:00 in the morning.

Science Teacher Mommy said...

Desmama--someTHING perhaps?

On the upside: rhubarb leaves are mildly toxic so your perp should be throwing his/her/its guts up right now.

Yankee Girl said...

I saw How to Tame Your Dragon last week with a couple of my nieces and absolutely loved it. We, too, saw it in 2D but I now really kind of wish we had gone for the 3D. And I love what you've said about Austen. And the food, of course, looks wonderful!