Closed Captioned For The Thinking Impaired

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Life: It's a Helluva Good Option

The Three Ages of Woman, 1905 by Gustav Klimt

“We're all fools," said Clemens, "all the time. It's just we're a different kind each day. We think, I'm not a fool today. I've learned my lesson. I was a fool yesterday but not this morning. Then tomorrow we find out that, yes, we were a fool today too. I think the only way we can grow and get on in this world is to accept the fact we're not perfect and live accordingly.” 

― Ray BradburyThe Illustrated Man

It is the last month of yet another decade on this planet in this incarnation for your humble food writer. A diplomat is a man who remembers a woman's birthday, but never her age. In three Wednesdays, my husband will toast to another happy anniversary of my 29th birthday. His words, not mine.  He thinking perhaps that I prefer to remain forever just one year shy of 30. I don't. I never have. Still, by any reckoning, I am now solidly in my middle-age, despite looking younger.  No amount of trendy clothing ill-advisedly purchased at Urban Outfitters or H&M can alter the ticks of my biological clock. (U.O. and H&M are inexpensive retail shops for the young and clueless that sell ready-to-wear garments with short hemlines and short-term expiration dates; I append for those of you in the Neiman Marcus crowd with quizzical expressions on your high-brows).

Who knows, maybe the Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists and New Agers are right about the cosmic wheel? I may once have been a Babylonian princess, a Queen of Egypt, and Emperor of the Roman Empire, these were tough jobs but somebody had to do them. My ego would certainly lend credence to such a storied lineage. Of course if it is true, I've fallen a long way down the karmic ladder, baby.

Mark Twain once said, "Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter." He's right. I never face my birthdays with trepidation, but I guess now I find myself doing exactly that.

Part of it is the fact that various parts of my body have conspired to commit mutiny against me. It is amazing how many musculoskeletal injuries I've suffered this year. Years of professional dance, powerlifting and competitive aerobics have finally and mercilessly taken their toll.

It seems to be happening all at once.

What was once agile, strong and graceful is now by comparison stiff, weak and limping. Far from being able to perform a tour de force: going from a rapid succession of pique turns into soaring tour de jetes and dramatically ending with a long, languorous 180 degree arabesque penchee' as I once did not so very long ago, I can barely climb a staircase without my body groaning while it plays some kind of twisted Rubik's Cube-like game with my knee joints. It would be funny if it were not so maddeningly pathetic.

“The wisest are the most annoyed at the loss of time.” 
― Dante Alighieri

This may be the worst of it - the acknowledgment that a solid chunk of my life is now behind me, if the average age for human beings is to be taken into account, and, like too many people before me, I feel I've got little to show for it other than a few strands of the requisite grey hair, even fewer so-called "character" lines, and what will probably be an extra 1000 lbs. on my frame, if my knee doesn't improve soon.

Another sad reckoning!

Is this the totality of the human experience?
Racing blindly forward the first 40 years or so stoked with hubris (and then denial when you run low on hubris) until you crash into a wall of futility where you contemplate your navel until they dump your bones into an earthen pit; only to repeat the cycle over again like you're caught in some demented Maytag appliance?

Like Woody Allen's Mickey says in the movie, Hannah and Her Sisters:
"... And Nietzsche, with his theory of eternal recurrence. He said the life we've lived we're gonna live over again the exact same way for eternity. Great. That means I'll have to sit through the Ice Capades again."

It hardly seems worth the trouble, does it?

Well, if I'm only going to end up where I am now anyway, no sense in trying to end it all prematurely especially if Nietzsche's wrong about the details of eternal recurrence and the Hindu's are right. According to Hinduism, I'd definitely experience another karmic downturn in my cycle if I killed myself for selfish reasons
. I'd hate to come back as a Velveeta-eating, nasal-twanging Indiana Hoosier fan and all that such a lifestyle entails just for the sin of suicide. It would be a version of hell that even Dante would shudder to contemplate if he in all of his Renaissance wonder could have imagined such a scenario.

Like Woody Allen's Mickey finally did, I, too, h
ave had an epiphany that has dragged me out of the murky depths of self-pity and nihilism.

Mickey's came while he was feeling his most morose and, in an attempt to escape his despair, he wanders into a New York art-house revival theatre that was running a classic Marx Brothers movie. A few minutes of Groucho and co.'s zany antics was enough to make him realize that life - though incessantly trying and likely meaningless - was full o
f delightful distractions; so why not participate in the experience and enjoy it when and while you can.

My epiphany came while writing this post, wondering how I would ever disentangle myself enough from the torturous knot I'd wound this posting into to come up with an accompanying recipe that didn't feature arsenic as its main ingredien
t. Then I recalled Woody's movies and their optimistic existential wisdom. Knowing that it is my choice to believe either the worst or the best of myself and my situation, I choose the best... while acknowledging that Life experience as such certainly has its foibles and limitations but, hey, it's all we got and as the saying goes: Quis non iuguolo vos plantos vos validus (what doesn't kill us makes us stronger). No one has yet died from a gimpy knee, so I'm sitting pretty. It's all a matter of perspective.

I like Krishnamurti's exploration into the subject of life and aging and keeping a fresh mind:

"I think constant endeavor to be something, to become something, is the real cause of the destructiveness and the aging of the mind. Look how quickly we are aging, not only the people who are over sixty, but also the young people. How old they are already, mentally! Very few sustain or maintain the quality of a mind that is young. I mean by young not the mind that merely wants to enjoy itself, to have a good time, but the mind that is uncontaminated, that is not scratched, warped, twisted by the accidents and incidents of life, a mind that is not worn out by struggle, by grief, by constant strivings. Surely it is necessary to have a young mind because the old mind is so full of the scars of memories that it cannot live, it cannot be earnest; it is a dead mind, a decided mind. A mind that has decided and lives according to its decisions is dead. But a young mind is always deciding anew, and a fresh mind does not burden itself with innumerable memories. A mind that carries no shadow of suffering, though it may pass through the valley of sorrow, remains unscratched.
I do not think such a young mind is to be acquired. It is not a thing that you can purchase through endeavor, through sacrifice. There is no coin to it and it is not a marketable thing, but if you see the importance of it, the necessity of it, if you see the truth of it, then something else takes place." J. Krishnamurti, The Book of Life 

In other words, just be present in the moment. React directly to the world around you, not through the hazy lens of your habits and memories. Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, focus the mind on the now. Life is so simple, it is we who insist on complicating it. 

Today I offer my culinary metaphor for life: 

Shrimp Fra Diavolo, a simple, hellish but delectable dish  - just like the human experience.

The man who inspired the dish was a late 18th century Neopolitan Jesse James type who liked to disguise himself on occasion as a monk when embarking on his mercenary missions (hence the "fra" part of his nickname Fra Diavolo or Brother Devil; you can guess where the "diavolo" part drew its inspiration). As to why a hot red toma
to sauce with shrimp was named after him is anybody's guess as there hasn't been any substantive historical evidence that this brigand (as such outlaws were quaintly called back then) nee' Michele Pezza ever ate the dish.

My best guess is that this infamous figure in Italian history while acting as a mercenary for the king of Sicily was so brutal that when he and hi
s buddies went on their rampages they left trails of red hot blood in their wake (appetizing, huh?) and in some kind of morbid commemoration of this man's dubious achievements the dish was born. Oh well, leave it to the Italians to derive gustatory inspiration from murder and still make it appealing.

The shrimp part of the story may be because Mik
ey was short in stature if not in savagery, or just because shrimp (as well as other forms of sea life) were cheap and bountiful in the south of Italy. Whatever the origin, it is a simple and satisfying dish to make at home. 

Get ready to spice up your life.....

Shrimp Fra Diavolo

You can amp up or tone down the heat by adjusting the amount of red chili flakes and garlic. You can also add another dimension to the dish by using fresh red chilis in the fresh chili pepper section of your produce market. Try to use the largest freshest prawns you can buy (16 to the pound sized shrimps work best).

I used a squid ink-infused pasta. I love the drama and contrast of the black against the red of the sauce and the white of the shrimp. The squid ink also gives the pasta a bit of a briny sea kiss. I prefer Fettuccine for this dish because the wider thicker noodles stand up to the heartiness of the sauce well.  You can, of course, use any type of pasta you like, or none at all. This would make a lovely stew served only with oven-warmed baguette lightly brushed with extra virgin olive oil.

For the vegetarians in the house: chunks of diced eggplant and fresh or smoked mozzarella make a great substitute for the shrimp. Just make sure you use a more substantial pasta shape like penne, ziti or farfalle if you go the veggie route. Linguini or fettuccine won't stand up to the veggies as well. Also add the eggplant after the onion & garlic to saute. Don't poach it. Add the mozzarella at the end when you are tossing the pasta with sauce.

A spicy California zinfandel or Italian barbera works great with this meal; as would any syrah-based wine like a southern French Rhone. Don't use your Turleys, your best Guigals or Gajas. Save those for drinking either on their own after dinner or with a roasted beast feast.

  • 1 lb. of fettuccine 
  • 1-1/2 lbs of large shrimp (size 16 to the lb.), deveined & shelled
  • 28 oz. of crushed San Marzano tomatoes or a box of Pomi 
  • 1 Tablespoon of tomato paste
  • 2 cloves of garlic, crushed and minced with sea salt until paste forms
  • 1 small onion, chopped into small dice
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons of crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 handful of fresh parsley, leaves only coarsely chopped
  • 1 large lemon, rolled vigorously either on the countertop or between your hands
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine (clean tasting & not too oaky)
  • 1/4 cup of extra-virgin olive oil
  • sea salt & fresh ground pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup pitted nicoise or black olives, sliced in half lengthwise (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon of sriracha hot chili sauce (optional)
  • freshly grated pecorino or parmagiano-reggiano, to taste (optional)


Fill a large pasta or stock pot 3/4 of the way up with cold water. Set it on a large burner over high heat to boil.

In a mixing bowl large enough to accommodate the shrimp, place one teaspoon of the sriracha (hot chili) sauce in the bowl and mix in one tablespoon of the extra-virgin olive oil and 5 grinds (or 1/2 teaspoon) of fresh ground pepper. Do not add salt as the hot sauce contains sodium and additional salt would only toughen the shrimp. Add shrimp to bowl & coat them completely with the marinade. (There should not appear to be much marinade.) Set aside.

  1. Meantime, heat a 14" saute pan (or a dutch oven if you don't have a 14" pan) over medium-high heat. When pan is hot, lower heat to medium and add the remainder of the olive oil, allowing the oil to heat up for 30 seconds or so.
  2. Add onions, a pinch of sea salt & a few grinds of black pepper (or no more than 1/8 teaspoon each). Saute until onions are soft and translucent.
  3. Add garlic paste, stirring in for 30 seconds or until fragrant.
  4. Add oregano, stir until you can smell the oregano.
  5. Add tomato paste, stir; cook until tomato paste loses its raw color and darkens slightly. Add olives, stirring them into the sauce.
  6. Pour in white wine, raising the heat slightly to medium-high and deglazing the pan by scraping any bits of sauce that have stuck to it. When white wine has almost evaporated, add the crushed tomatoes. Stir well to fully incorporate then add half of the parsley. Lower the heat to low setting. Let cook for 15 minutes. Now cook the pasta.

While sauce is cooking, add salt to boiling water. Stir; add pasta. Be sure to use the lowest time recommended by the pasta manufacturers instructions. Pasta may be ready before the sauce. If it is, have a colander over a large pasta bowl ready; gently lift the pasta out of the pot with metal tongs or pasta fork and place it all into the colander, allowing the excess water to drain into the large bowl. Then carefully lift pasta-filled colander; place it over the pasta pot still filled with water making sure the water does not touch the bottom of the colander, then add a tablespoon of butter (don't use oil) and a few tablespoons of grated pecorino, tossing the pasta lightly with butter (or olive oil) and cheese. Then lightly cover colander with aluminum foil keeping the water in the pot on a very low simmer until sauce is complete.

When sauce has thickened slightly, cut softened lemon (that you have vigorously rolled on the counter) in half; add juice to the sauce, using your fingers to strain any pips and discard the remains.
Stir in the lemon juice; now add the marinated shrimp to the sauce in one single layer. Try not to allow the shrimp to touch each other in the pan.
Cover pan with a large lid or foil and allow shrimp to poach undisturbed for 3 minutes or 4 minutes (if size 16, 2-3 minutes if smaller). Test shrimp for doneness. They should be just opaque with pink edges. Do not overcook. When shrimp are cooked remove them from pan, set aside with a little sauce in a dish to keep warm.

Have pasta in colander handy.
Now, turn the heat up for the sauce, adding the remaining parsley; 1 ladle full of pasta water, stirring well to incorporate. When sauce looks smooth, turn off the heat, add the grated cheese if using, stirring well, now carefully combine the pasta with the sauce, using tongs and a large spoon and adding a little additional pasta water or drizzle in extra-virgin olive oil if pasta appears too dry. Place pasta in warm individual plates or large pasta bowl. Garnish with shrimp and a drizzling of the reserved sauce.

This recipe will serve 4-6 optimistic existentialists.

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