J.K. Rowling’s much awaited adult novel, “The Casual Vacancy,” had many people drooling over its possibilities, but has left almost everyone with a sour taste in their mouths. The recent release by the genius behind the Harry Potter series is a wordy treatise on modern class wars in Britain and their effects at the microscopic level of the individual. A major drawback of the novel is the in-depth description of the daily lives of citizens in Pagford, a fictional village based on Rowling’s hometown in the Forest of Dean.
But that intricate description is also the book’s major virtue, for without it one would never understand the complexities of British council elections or the teenaged angst of living in a much despised and ridiculed housing project with a mother addicted to heroin. While the characters are multidimensional, Rowling has received criticism for the stereotypical, even racist, nature in which they are portrayed.
The book’s premise revolves around a spot on the city council left vacant when its holder, Barry Fairbrother, drops dead of an aneurysm at the age of 44. This seems to bring out the ridiculous and the sublime in the upstanding and not-so-upstanding citizens of Pagford. Thoughts of running for Barry’s spot spur on a nasty competitiveness in the adults, while their children expose them for what they are in an online forum. With death, rape, methadone clinics, and regular old hometown drama, there is not much magic in this book. Who knows, one day it may be considered a classic study in social customs of middle class Brits during the 21st century, but for now I think I will casually vacate “The Casual Vacancy.”
We can still cook up some great food that will ensure there are no vacancies at the table. Slow cooked beef short ribs with parsley mashed potatoes are perfect autumnal comfort foods for a Sunday night dinner.
Beef Short Ribs
Self-appointed food revolutionaries at British Food in America aim to bring back the reputation of all British recipes, which has suffered a decline since the rationing days of World War II. Here they jazz up the British original with some Louisiana hot sauce.
For the beef:
4 beef short ribs on the bone or 1 - 2 per person boneless
Coarse salt, like Maldon, and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons corn or olive oil
2 carrots cut into big chunks
2 celery ribs cut into big chunks
Red onion, peeled and cut into eight sections
2 bay leaves
About a dozen stalks of parsley
A heaping teaspoon dried thyme
A dash of hot sauce
A dollop of Kitchen Bouquet
About 1 1/2 cups robust red wine
For the sauce (optional):
2 cups red wine vinegar
About 1/2 cup Demerara, Turbinado or plain brown sugar
Scant 1/2 cup raisins
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Season the meat with generous doses of salt and pepper.
Set the oil over high heat until it shimmers in a heavy oven pot big enough to hold the ribs fairly snugly and sear them until browned.
Add all of the other ingredients for the beef to the pot; use enough wine to rise about 3/4 of the way up the side of the ribs.
Bring the wine to a boil, cover the pot and put it in the oven for at least 3 1/2 hours or until a fork pierces the meat with ease.
Meanwhile, make the sauce by boiling the sugar in the vinegar until it reduces by about half to a blackish syrup, then reduce the heat to a simmer and add the raisins to plump them. If you go too far and need a little liquid, strain some of the cooking wine from the beef pot.
Parsley Mashed Potatoes
4 medium/large potatoes, washed, peeled and cubed
1/3 cup milk or more
2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 tablespoons dried parsley
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 teaspoon garlic salt
Boil potatoes until tender. Drain and add all other ingredients. Mash until smooth and creamy. Top with pats of butter.
Pan Braised Brussels Sprouts
1 carton Brussels sprouts
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon butter
Rinse sprouts and trim ends. Place in pan, cover with water, and boil until tender-crisp; drain. Place olive oil in skillet and heat to warm. Add sprouts, salt and pepper, and cook until tender and leaves are beginning to brown. Add butter and stir to cover all sprouts. Serve immediately.
The winner of our gumbo recipe contest is Janet Lopez, engineering instructor at Muskogee High School. Janet attended Louisiana State University and is an ardent LSU football fan. She will receive a copy of “The Cutting Season” by Attica Locke.
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 to 3 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
2-3 quarts of water or broth (or more if needed)
Salt, pepper and/or Cajun seasoning to taste
2 to 3 pounds meat (can use chicken, Andouille sausage, duck, rabbit, squirrel, wild game, or any combination of seafood)
File’ powder - to taste
Heat oil in an iron skillet (or a Dutch oven). Add flour and cook over medium heat (not high) until dark brown, STIRING CONSTANTLY. (This should take about 15-20 minutes, or sometimes longer.) Stir in chopped vegetables and cook, stirring, until tender. Mix in broth or water slowly and stir until smooth. Add seasonings. Add raw meat (except seafood) and simmer for 2 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. Add seafood and simmer 10 – 20 more minutes. Sprinkle with File’ and serve over a bed of cooked rice.