Plague Diary 11: The Cosa Nostra Cooking Hour

I Develop My Cooking Skills

Living during a time of pestilence, I have decided to become a better cook. My goal is to cook meals that both Martine and I like. We both like Italian food, but for some reason, Los Angeles is not a great place for Italian cooking.

Although Martine was born in France, she spent her most of her childhood in Oceanport, New Jersey, where she loved the pastas with rich red sauce—not the pale imitation to be found in Southern California.

Several years ago I picked up a used cookbook written by ex-Mafioso Henry Hill entitled The Wiseguy Cookbook: My Favorite Recipes from My Life as a Goodfella to Cooking on the Run. Now you may remember an entertaining gangster film directed by Martin Scorsese and released by Warner Brothers in 1990 entitled Goodfellas. The film starred Ray Liotta as a mafioso with the non-Italian moniker of Henry Hill. Well, it’s the same Henry Hill as wrote the cookbook.

Today I spent several hours preparing a favorite dish that Hill cooked while serving time at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in Pennsylvania on narcotics charges. The recipe is for “Oven Penitentiary Sauce with Sausage” on page 133. For some reason, there is an Italian grocery in Santa Monica called Bay Cities Italian Deli whose shelves are not picked clean by hoarders. (I guess they’re too busy snooling on their stash of toilet paper.) So I have access to high-quality Italian groceries, while not having comparable access to American goodies at the supermarket.

The Oven Penitentiary Sauce with Sausage was a big hit with Martine, and I loved it as well. It was the rich Italian food of the Italian migration to the East Coast, with lots of garlic and fresh basil baked in a 350º oven for an hour. I even added my own touch, combining the sauce with fusilli pasta in the oven for an additional quarter hour.

I am looking forward to exploring this cookbook in greater detail during the prevailing plague conditions.

 

 

Plague Diary 10: Black Beans and Rice

Simple Cooking During Times of Quarantine

Of late, my favorite dishes have combined vegetarianism with hot chiles. Meat doesn’t please me as much, probably because I suspect that over the years the quality has declined somewhat. On Tuesday, I cooked a tuna noodle casserole for Martine to eat for suppers this week. For myself, I made my favorite easy and mostly vegetarian black beans and rice dish. Here is a list of the ingredients:

½ cup olive oil
1 cup Basmati rice
1 chopped onion
2 minced Serrano chiles
Several cloves of garlic, minced or crushed
1 15 oz can of black beans with liquid
2½ cups chicken or vegetable stock
Salt and pepper to taste
Garnish with chopped parsley or cilantro

Start by chopping the onions and adding to the heated olive oil. Then add the garlic, but don’t wait too long before adding the chile: Garlic burns quickly when left untended, leading to an unpleasant flavor. Basmati rice can be a little difficult to work with as the amount of liquid to use is often variable depending on the particular rice used. Add the rice to the browning onions, garlic, and chiles, and stir for a couple of minutes. Lower the flame, then add 2½ cups stock, cover, and leave untouched for about 12 minutes.

Then and only then, remove the cover and stir briefly. If all the liquid is absorbed, add some more and continue. Then open a can of black beans and pour the beans and the liquid it came with on top of the rice. Re-cover the pot and cook for another ten minutes or so, adding salt and pepper to taste. Before serving, garnish with parsley or cilantro.

This quantity of beans and rice usually lasts me for four meals.

The main difficulty during quarantine is that hoarders usually scoop up all the Basmati rice from supermarkets. You can buy it in 5- or 10-pound bags at an Indian or Persian grocery.

 

 

Plague Diary 9: Chinese Virus Torture

LA Times Photo of Bus Riders

Looking back on yesterday’s very pessimistic post, I wish I had not posted it. And while I’m in an apologizing mood, I wish I had not used the title “Chinese Virus Torture” for this post—except, as you will see, it is oddly appropriate.

While I could see that COVID-19 is the news story of the century, I am appalled that the news media are pre-empting all other news to strike heavily and again and again and again on the subject of the virus. Almost as if it were a form of Chinese water torture. (I will not otherwise use the racist term Chinese Virus, much beloved of our Orange Führer.)

I think that, at this time, people should learn to laugh again, to remember that, yes, there will be life after the coronavirus slinks away. Other than five or six basic facts such as washing your hands, maintaining social distance, etc., there really isn’t much else to be said. When the broadcast media become all virus all the time, the result is to strike fear among the population.

When toilet paper suddenly disappears from the shelves of our supermarkets, it is an indicator that the news media is presenting an out of balance picture that creates an environment of irrationality and panic.

If I were in charge of programming, I would not replace the endless news cycle with some entertainment. Right now, it is difficult to avoid the talking heads drumming death into our eyes and ears.

The mess we are in is going to last a while. My post yesterday was a sign that the virus news hammer was starting to get to me. Today I feel a little bit better.

 

 

 

Plague Diary 9: What Comes Next?

My Real Worry Is How We Transition Back to Normal Life

Eventually, the COVID-19 curve will flatten and the number of new cases will decline. I expect millions will die, in prisons, in refugee camps, in nursery homes, on aircraft carriers—everywhere where people are forced to live in close quarters. The economy will not simply bounce back: There will be a lot of casualties. They will include hospitals; many of your favorite restaurants, bars, and clubs; thousands of retailers; hundreds of companies across the country, large and small; numerous airlines and (I sincerely hope) ocean cruise lines. The notion of democracy in the United States will likely be in shambles, what with the millions of brain dead who rely on Fox News and fundamentalist Evangelical ministers for the “real story” of what happened.

Will the 2020 presidential election even take place? Or will the orange-haired dictator be crowned king?

People who live paycheck to paycheck will be thrown out of their jobs and be cast out into the streets, unable to pay the rent. Some movements are afoot to prevent this from happening, but I suspect the growing numbers of indigent will just be too much for the system to bear. If things get particularly bad, I may be one of the victims.

I don’t think the present leadership of this country is even marginally competent. There are some governors of populous states who have braved Trump’s displeasure, but the Feds themselves are a sad crew, what with the evil McConnell at the helm of the Senate and circus clowns running the Executive and Judicial branches of government.

My feeling as I look to the future: Dread.

 

 

Plague Diary 8: Beginning to Fray

Santa Monica Bay in the Plague

We have had two full weeks of staying in place during the coronavirus epidemic. I have managed to develop a routine that sees me through the day, but the stress is beginning to tell on Martine. She cannot bear to stay in the apartment except to sleep, wash, and eat. The rest of the time, she takes long walks while listening to old 1960s rock tunes on a Sansa Clip MP3 player I got for her.

It is tough not having any place to go. No restaurants. No book stores. No museums. No movie theaters. No parks. Even the beach scene above from the Los Angeles Times will be difficult, as the beach parking lots are closed. In the meantime, the U.S. is getting some 18,000 new COVID-19 cases a day, and the growth rate is looking frighteningly logarithmic. For someone like Martine who doesn’t like to read and who dreads the “Bring Out Your Dead” tone of the news media, escape is an answer of sorts.

I fear that the stay in place orders will continue through the month of April—at the very least. I will do whatever I can to ease Martine’s restless desperation, though it won’t be easy.

 

Plague Diary 7: Who Was That Masked Man?

Public Transit at a Time of Plague

I wish I had my camera with me. Why? Because I am witnessing things during this time of plague that may not be seen for another hundred years.

This morning, I took a two-mile walk down Broadway to Bay Cities Italian Deli on Lincoln Boulevard in Santa Monica. It was a cool, crisp, sunny day, free from the lowering clouds that have beset us during the last couple of weeks. Since the long spell of rain, together with an ingrown toenail, kept me indoors, I thought it would be best to take the bus back.

Because of the COVID-19 outbreak, there had been some changes. Passengers on foot had to board from the rear door and did not have to pay any fare. There was a yellow cord stretched just past the two sideways-facing seats in front separating the front from the rear of the bus. The front seats were reserved for wheelchair passengers and passengers with strollers who needed the ramp to be lowered for them. The whole idea is to minimize interaction between driver and passengers. Even so, the driver probably still has to help secure wheelchairs to the side of the bus.

Even so, during the ride from Lincoln to my stop at Bundy Drive, there were never more than four passengers aboard, all sitting several feet from one another for social distancing purposes.

The Big Blue Bus (as the Santa Monica Municipal Bus Lines is known) is a well-run public transportation service. I can see that, given the restrictions enforced by Coronavirus, they are losing beaucoup bucks during this strange period, but I am reassured that, even now, public transportation is still available, and that it is free of charge.

 

 

Plague Diary 6: Good News from My Dentist

Watching the News These Days Is Like the Dance of Death

There’s nothing like a spell of plague to make one doubt one’s sources of information. And mainly, I mean the news.

On Saturday, I bit into some fruit, only to have one of my dental crowns pop out. Inwardly, I cursed. Can the crown be glued on? Will a new super-expensive crown be necessary? Or is the underlying tooth rotten, requiring an implant? Fortunately, my dentist was able to see me today. It looks like I’ll need a new crown.

During our conversation, I learned a few things that seem to go against most of the news stories I’ve been seeing lately about the coronavirus. (And really, it seems that over 75% of the news is about just that.)

My dentist came in just for me, her office being closed for more routine dental procedures. So the atmosphere was more casual than usual. We started talking about the “plague” that is gobbling up all the news services. She expected that she expected that the virus would be old news within a couple of weeks. All viruses have a life of somewhere around four to six days. The two weeks isolation described by the news services was because many people are infected by contact with multiple carriers of the virus.

It turns out that the UCLA Dental School, with which she is affiliated, will be re-opening within a couple of weeks. Why would they do that if there is any substantial danger to the dentists?

She re-iterated the usual advice about washing one’s hands, but added one very useful piece of information: Be sure to dry your hands. Viruses like a moist, warm environment.  Social distancing generally works. The main danger is being in close contact with someone who cynically does not believe in changing his or her lifestyle, which is a danger to the sick and elderly, who are most likely to die of the virus.