Monday, November 14, 2011

the secret world

“Do all the Disciplines have their own clubhouses?”

“It’s not a clubhouse,” Eliot said sharply. He dumped a huge clump of fresh pasta into a tall pot of boiling water and stirred it to break it up. “This’ll cook in about a minute flat.”

“Then what is it?”

“Well, all right, it is a clubhouse. But don’t call it that. We call it the Cottage. We have the seminars here, and the library isn’t bad.” He tasted the sauce, then glugged in a slug of heavy cream and stirred it in widening circles. The sauce paled and thickened. Eliot had a jaunty, offhanded confidence at the stove.

“I hope you don’t mind pasta,” he added, to Quentin. “It’s all I made. There’s bruschetta out there, or there was. At least there’s lots of wine.” He drained the pasta in the sink, sending up a huge gout of steam, and dumped it into the pan to finish in the sauce.

“God, I love cooking. I think if I weren’t a magician, I’d be a chef. It’s just such a relief after all that invisible, intangible bullshit, don’t you think?”

Quentin Coldwater is seventeen, an overachieving, Type-A student with an unusual aptitude for advanced math, a hopeless crush on his best friend Julia, and a long-standing interest in magic tricks. On the day of his interview for entrance to Princeton, his life quite literally takes an odd turn. In pursuit of a letter blown away by an errant gust of wind, he runs into a back garden and suddenly finds himself in a place where it is not winter, but summer - and he is invited to sit a very strange entrance exam for a genuine magical college.

My selection for the Fall 2011 edition of Novel Food, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is a story about college and growing up that shows how even being able to do magic does not make coming of age any less awkward. Despite Quentin's initial excitement, he discovers that life at Brakebills School of Magical Pedagogy still has much in common with life in the ordinary world, and just because he's in a new place doesn't mean that he's become a new person. It's a sharp, clever urban fantasy tale, and Grossman writes with an eye for detail that produces unexpectedly delightful food scenes.

Quentin, after sitting a written entrance exam that includes exercises in making up a foreign language and drawing a rabbit that doesn't stay put on the page, receives a lunch tray from a "silent, comically correct butler in white gloves." It consists of "a sandwich – roasted red peppers and very fresh mozzarella on sourdough bread – a lumpy pear, and a thick square of dark, bitter chocolate" plus "a glass of something cloudy and fizzy" poured from an unlabelled bottle. (Nothing strange - it turns out to be grapefruit soda.)

During his semester at Brakebills South - an unlikely campus in an even unlikelier location - he is served "a cup of hot tea, a tumbler of water, a plate with a pat of yeasty European butter and a thick slab of sourdough bread on it, and a glass containing what would turn out to be two fingers of peppery vodka" as lunch after hours and hours of casting a spell to drive nails straight into wood. He then spends his afternoon with another spell - one for removing nails from wood.

Later, after graduation, Quentin and his friends throw a ridiculous, tipsy dinner party in Manhattan whose menu includes Lillet cocktails (Lillet, vodka, and champagne), miniature sweet-and-sour lobster rolls, pork chops dusted with bitter chocolate, and individual baked Alaskas. They overdo the carefully planned wine pairings, and don't make it to the cheese course.

The scene I like best, however, begins on the very first day of Quentin's Third Year. The students have been placed into their Disciplines - the magical equivalent of majors - and Quentin and his friend Alice are the would-be new members of the Physical Magic group. Their first challenge, however, is getting through the front door of the small Victorian bungalow where the seminars are held. Several hours after they arrive at the building, they finally succeed by burning the door in half. Once inside, Quentin and Alice make the acquaintance of the Janet, Josh, and Eliot - "Physical Kids" - and drink quite a lot of red wine as they wait for Eliot to finish making dinner.

They were in a shabby but comfortable library lined with threadbare rugs and lit by candles and firelight. Quentin realized that the little house must be larger on the inside than it was on the outside; it was also a lot cooler – the atmosphere was that of a nice, chilly fall evening. Books overflowed the bookcases and stood in wobbly stacks in the corners and even on the mantelpiece. The furniture was distinguished but mismatched, and in places it was severely battered.

When the pasta is ready, they sit down to eat:

With a white tablecloth and two heavy silver candelabras and a wildly eclectic assortment of silverware, some of which bordered on light hand-to-hand weaponry, the table in the library almost looked like somewhere you could eat. The food was simple but not at all bad.

Quentin let the chatter wash over him. Eating a sophisticated meal, alone in their own private dining room, felt very adult. This was it, he thought. He had been an outsider before, but now he had really entered into the inner life of the school. This was the real Brakebills. He was in the warm secret heart of the secret world.

Quentin's first dinner in the Cottage makes me think of the meals we had in the vegetarian co-op I lived in during senior year of college. Though it was a bigger (and somewhat rowdier) crowd, the house had a similar shabby charm. We had a shelf of battered cookbooks in the common room, and it wasn't unusual to wander into the kitchen and discover all the countertops covered in flour or laid out with phyllo because someone had decided to make bisteeya or puff pastry on a whim. Dinner took place at a long dining table in a room with creaky floorboards and odd angles, and in winter we'd hang out in the common room, curled up on the ancient couches or lying on the floor by the fireplace.

I decided I wanted a dish that reminded me of cooking by trial and error without being too fussed about the results, of wandering into the kitchen late on a Saturday afternoon and watching a meal evolve, unplanned and unrehearsed, as more people trickled in with thoughts of food on their minds. I wanted the kind of casual meal I might prepare with a group of people who didn't mind spending the afternoon in the kitchen.

The ravioli dish below uses a little trick I figured out just this year. As much as I love using ravioli stamps to turn out neat little squares and rounds that are perfect to freeze, I'll be the first to admit that it's a time-consuming process and not quite the sort of thing for a casual group dinner. You can speed up the process, however, if you're not too fussed about the presentation: instead of making perfectly regular ravioli with stamps, cut rolled-out sheets of pasta dough into wide strips using kitchen shears, fill them, fold them and use the shears again to trim them. A quick dip in boiling water, a slick of butter and garlic, and all that's left is to set the table and open the wine.

Not quite magic, but I think the Physical Kids would approve.

Swiss Chard Ravioli - The Quick(ish) Version

The filling is just Swiss chard pureed with a little ricotta and garlic, but ground walnuts or finely chopped mushrooms are also a nice addition.

(Makes three or four servings. Ravioli may be frozen, but it's not really the point of this exercise.)

Start with the pasta dough: Dump two cups of all-purpose flour on a clean countertop. Make a well in the middle. Crack in two eggs. Pour in a tablespoon of olive oil and a tablespoon of water. Use your fingers to break up the eggs and swirl them around to pull the flour in, little by little. (More detailed instructions can be found here.)

Once you have a rather shaggy mass of dough, start kneading. Wet your hands if it seems very dry; continue kneading. Knead until you have a stiff dough that is very smooth to the touch. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and stick it in the fridge for at least an hour.

For the filling, begin with a pound of washed and trimmed Swiss chard. Put the leaves in a large pot or heatproof bowl, and cover with boiling water. Let it sit for a few minutes, until the leaves wilt. Transfer to a colander. When it has cooled enough to handle, pick it up in handfuls and squeeze out all the excess liquid.

Chop the chard roughly, paying attention to the stems. Gather it in handfuls once again and squeeze out any remaining liquid.

Heat a little olive oil in a large pan, add three cloves of finely chopped garlic. Add the chard, and saute until soft. Allow to cool.

Transfer the cooked chard to a food processor. Add a generous scoop of whole milk ricotta and a handful of walnuts, if you're using them. Add a fat pinch of salt and a dusting of freshly cracked black pepper, and puree until smooth. The mixture should be predominantly green in color, and taste more of chard than ricotta.

To assemble the ravioli, pull the dough out of the fridge and let it come to room temperature. Set up your pasta maker, and roll out a sheet of dough to the second-thinnest setting. (Probably about 5 or 6 on the dial, depending on your model.)

Using kitchen shears, cut the dough into wide strips crosswise. Pick up a strip of dough, place a spoonful of filling on it, and fold it over. Pinch to seal. Trim the edges of excess dough. Place the finished ravioli on flour-dusted trays. (If you're cooking with friends, this process works quite well assembly-line style.)

To cook the ravioli, put a big pot of salted water on to boil, and drop in the ravioli a dozen at a time. When they float to the surface, they're cooked through. Lift them out with a slotted spoon.

Sauce them with butter and more garlic. A bit of bacon wouldn't go astray, either.

(Alas, I experienced critical camera failure, so I'm lacking a photo of the finished dish.)