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2.28.2010

Back to basics: cooking! Melted Scamorza Done Another Way...

I've been so serious lately! I think it's time to go back to cooking and relax. Today for lunch I hit upon a new way to do an old Italian favorite: melted scamorza, and I want to tell you about it. And write about it here so I remember! I tend to invent dishes as a function of what I find (and don't find) in my ice box, and sometimes, by chance, I hit on a winner! But then, if I don't write it down somewhere quick, I forget all about it.

I suspect scamorza is not an easy cheese to find outside of Italy: it's similar to mozzarella, but aged some more and therefore it doesn't shed all that water when it melts. It comes in two varieties: plain and smoked (affumicata).

I prefer the plain, my husband the smoked but it doesn't really matter. Both are good and easy to cook. Just throw them in a frying pan, let them melt on medium-high heat and flip them over so that they are nicely golden on both sides. It takes a couple of minutes.

Easy? You bet. And if you haven't got scamorza you can do it with almost any semi-creamy cheese at hand, even Camembert or Brie (cut in thick slices - leave the skin on, it has a nice taste).

What did I do today that was different? Simple, I added mushrooms and ham, and when I was finished it looked very unusual and pretty, and the tastes of ham and mushrooms really complemented the cheese.

I happened to have some already cooked sliced mushrooms at hand (they were plain, pan-fried) and a couple of cooked ham slices - but you could use equally well any other kind of ham, including smoked ham.

First step. I grabbed my scissors and cut the ham up in short strips, which I threw into a grease-free frying pan (the Teflon type)over a medium fire, letting them fry (without fat - that's important) until they started to dry (don't toast too much or else the ham strips curl up, shrink and become too salty). By the way, fried ham this way is something I always use in lieu of bacon: much less fat and better for you health. Also it gives a more delicate taste to almost any dish that you'd normally do with bacon.

Second step. Add the mushrooms and chunks of cheese artfully, so that the cheese is in direct contact with the pan, and prettily surrounded by the mushrooms and ham. And proceed as usual: keep frying until the cheese is golden underneath. Don't bother to flip the cheese over but make sure it's soft all the way through.

Et voilà! Slide into a (previously heated) serving dish and serve.

Presto fatto. Tell me how you like it!

2.22.2010

When I was a work of art and didn't know it!

Starting March 14 until May 31 the world-famous Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic is going to start sitting behind a table, for 7 hours a day, for (nearly) 3 months, as long as her retrospective at MOMA lasts. Titled "the Artist is Present", it is an entirely new installation - pardon, "art performance" - she has specially designed for this show at MOMA. It is going to be the "pièce de résistence" of her retrospective while she has delegated to some 36 young artists she has specially trained the reproduction of some of her more famous pieces - sorry, I mean performances - from past exhibitions.

She will let visitors stream down to her table, they will be able to stop in front of her (will there be a chair for them?), but as far as I understand it, she doesn't plan to engage in any conversation whatsoever. Mum is the word. For 7 hours times 90 days, that's about 600 hours stitting behind a table without either moving or talking. That will be her longest performance ever. In a recent interview, artist Marina confessed she expected that the performance would test her to the very limit of her art.

In the same interview, by the way, she also said she liked the recession. These were good times for artists, she declared. Certainly good times for her, since she started back in the 1970s with such performances as "imponderabilia": it required her standing naked on a doorstep with Ulay (now her ex-husband) in front of her, leaving just enough space between the two of them to allow visitors through in such a way that they had to walk looking either in her face or in his. That was in Italy back in 1977 and since then, wow, our Marina has come a long way, baby! The MOMA is tops in the contemporary art world - there is no museum that is more important and no city like New York. No wonder she likes recession times!

Now, at several points in my working life, I've had to sit for hours on end on the podium at international conferences without being allowed to say one word. And this sort of thing could go on for 8 hours or more, for up to a week. I think the longest I got stuck this way was ten days.Just had to sit up there, next to the Conference chairman (or chairwoman as the case may be) without moving from my seat, looking down at the audience, as one delegate after another asked for the floor and made in a monotonous voice an incredibly dull and banal intervention. My only job was to make sure the Chairman had the names of speakers on his list in the right order and that he had in front of him the right documents for discussion - not much to do, but I was thankful I did have something that helped me from falling asleep.

If only I'd known that sitting like that, without moving, for hours on end was an art performance! That would have been an immense consolation. Yes,I was a work of art and didn't know it. I was in the same position as Molière's Jourdain who didn't know that when he spoke, it was prose. Ah, little did I know how artistic I was, stuck on the podium, motionless and bored to tears.

But now, from one artist to another, I have some words of advice for Marina - because she is right, it's going to be quite an ordeal, to sit at that table for 3 months! I know - because I've gone through it myself in my own small and modest way - there are actually three big dangers threatening her.

One, (you've guessed it already) is boredom. After a while, just looking at people is no fun. You get jaded. A face here, another there, who cares. So you need to prepare yourself with little stories you can tell yourself - things to meditate on, or amuse yourself with. That's very important - or else you're going to fall off that chair, fast asleep. And that would be very, very undecorous, now, to have a slumbering artist suddenly collapse on the floor.

Two, you have to decide whether you are going to allow yourself to repair to the toilet. Now I suspect that in your view the artist has to be "present" throughout the whole exhibition, right? then you need to plan for it: no tea or coffee in the morning, no milk with your cornflakes, no orange juice, nothing. Banish all liquids!

Three, come prepared to take good care of your...behind. Some people are endowed with vast, cushiony behinds, and they're the lucky ones. If you're not the type, dear Marina (and looking at you on your pictures, I suspect you're not), then you're in REAL trouble. Do take a thick, soft pillow with you to sit on. It'll save you from untold tortures: a chair, even a padded one, after a few hours makes you feel you're sitting on spikes. Yes, like knives pointing upwards and slowly going up and through the lower part of your body. And unless you're an Indian fakir, you're in deep trouble. And nobody is going to notice that pillow you're sitting on. And I sure won't tell your little secret!

It's going to be HARD, Marina, but then, what doesn't one do for Art with a capital A? There's not limit to Contemporary Art!

2.20.2010

Long Live the Wily Greeks !

They deserve our gratitude!

As I had suggested in my last post, the wily Greeks have done it again. Far from destroying the Euro by exposing its soft underbelly, with their cunning and creative public accounting they've selflessly given us Europeans, members of the Euro zone, a helping hand.

Finally the press has caught up with the news, and French and German exporters are reportedly happily crowing that the Euro at last is giving them a breather. About time people realized the benefits of a weaker Euro! Meanwhile, with the Fed tweaking upwards one of their discount rates, the dollar has strengthened somewhat, giving an additional push to what the Greeks had started.

This said, there is little doubt that the Euro has a dangerously exposed underbelly: the richer Euro-zone members (meaning Germany and France) may very well have to bail out Greece's national debt. This is likely to be a hugely unpopular measure and the Germans in the street - guys like you and me who know little about economics and public accounting, and rarely think about it - are already grumbling, saying that they don't want to help out people who've been on a free ride (meaning the Greeks) while they were tightening their belts (because of the slowdown in exports). But they're wrong: they should thank the Greeks for lowering the Euro and making it easier for them to sell their stuff abroad!

Moreover, and that's very fortunate, Greece is a small country and the bailout, if needed, should not be too expensive. Think what it would cost if it were Spain! And there's a silver lining: with the speculative attack on the Euro brought on by Greek profligacy and total disregard for Euro rules, the institutional weakness of the Euro has been at last fully exposed. As long as the Euro was flying high, no one had noticed. But now, hopefully, something will be done about it.

And something really NEEDS to be done. Or else, the next villain - I mean country - will be Spain, or worse (why not?) Italy. Then any bailout would cause intense suffering - not to mention the collapse of the Euro.

Seriously, will our governments take note? I hope so.

2.13.2010

The Greek crisis and challenge to the Euro: Why is Europe not rushing to the rescue?

Two days ago, speculators expected the European government summit in Brussels to announce with suitable fireworks the salvaging of Greece from its horrible debt...Then nothing happened. No fireworks. Only a very cool response to the effect that if something really, really went wrong, then Europe might do something - something meaning presumably that it might provide whatever funds would be necessary to stem speculation and restore confidence in the Greek Government's capacity to manage its debt.

Moreover, as Angela Merkel coldly observed, Greece hadn't asked for help. So why should anyone have ever expected it to be forthcoming? Moreover,the European Commission had indicated that it was perfectly happy with the Greek Government's reform programme. People in Greece were a lot less happy, as clearly shown by their street protests and strikes this week. They were not going to accept reforms without a good fight, now, were they? But that's par for the course. No reform is ever liked by those who have to go through them. It's in the nature of things.

It's also in the nature of things to grumble. Grumble about the fact that the Greek only deserved what they got, after having gotten into the Euro zone on false pretences, faking their public accounts and pretending the debt was around 4 percent of GNP when it was four times as high. Grumble about the fact that speculative attacks on sovereign debt were a new, profoundly disturbing facet of our never-ending crisis, and mutter about what country might be hit next: Spain (very likely), Portugal (idem), Ireland (idem), Italy (less so but not out of the woods) etc etc Grumble about the fact that Europe once more was not able to put its act together: here was a crisis among Euro members, the Euro was threatened, no European government wanted the International Monetary Fund to come to the rescue, but neither did they lift a finger to do anything constructive.

We're back to the usual dismal display of European weakness and incompetence on the international scene.

But are we?

I believe there are two good reasons why we have witnessed this bizarre, ho-hum outcome in Brussels. Last night, I was watching Stiglietz on TV (in an interview on France 24) and I half expected him to come up with these very reasons. After all, he is a famous Nobel Prize Columbia U. Professor, probably the top economist of his generation if not of our times, the man who single-handedly managed to slice off the head of the Washington Consensus dragon (remember the Washington Consensus? It was that catastrophic ideology whereby unleashing free Market Forces was the answer to all our ills - just ask the Asians how they felt in the 1990s crisis when the IMF raised interests and tightened belts, thus ensuring the crisis would last twice as long as necessary...) In short, I consider him a very big man and he's just come out with a book on the current crisis with a very apt title: Freefall. A book I've put on top of my list of books to read...He's also an advisor to the Greek Government, so I truly expected him to come out with the goods, and tell us what really happened in Brussels and why Germany and France didn't rush to rescue Greece.

Well, he didn't.

And I think I know why. Curiously - so far - the media has also kept mum on the subject. I don't know why they are so reticent and I suspect that soon what I'm saying here is going to occur to somebody else. Of course, I'm only "nougatizing" and I could be wrong. You tell me after you've heard my reasons.

So here they are. One is broadly political, the other is strictly economic.

The political first.It's very simple: if governments in Brussels had come out announcing a rescue with all the fanfare needed to discourage speculation, that would have cut any chance for the Greek Government to successfully carry out its planned reforms. It would have encouraged protesters in their protests, strikers in their strikes, and made any reform impossible from the start.

The economic next. This is a more touchy issue. And harder to prove. But it is so likely to be true that it is difficult to believe it isn't. This Greek crisis in the Euro zone is exactly what the doctor would recommend to lower the Euro. And a weakened Euro is precisely what the doctor recommends to encourage European Euro-zone exports, particularly the German ones that happen to occupy top-end, high quality and/or luxury niches in the international market. The kind of products you can easily sell more of the very minute prices go down. So any point loss in the Euro is a God-sent for Germans. And for the French too. And the Italians. Ok, I won't go on, you get the picture. But naturally nobody in Brussels could come out and say so, even if they all secretly rejoiced at the weakening of the Euro.

How does all this strike you? Let me know...
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