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Mirror Earth

October 27, 2012 Leave a comment

Two weeks ago I wrote about Paul Elie’s Reinventing Bach, which I was only partway into. I finished it Tuesday night. What a puzzling marvel of a book, bubbling over with stories and ideas, narrated polyphonically (by design, though it takes a while to catch on, as characters are introduced briefly, then dropped for 50 pages, only to return more boldly). I was tempted to start in next on Elie’s first book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, his 2004 study of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy. On further reflection, I decided I need a break.

What next? I looked over my growing backlog of novels, the most recent addition being Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. And my history backlog. I tried out Amazon samples of a few books. Last night, on seeing Amanda Foreman’s review of the new J.K. Rowling novel in tomorrow’s edition of the NYT Sunday book review, I was reminded that I’ve been wanting to read Foreman’s A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War, which the NYT had on its list of ten best books of 2011. Foreman is apparently quite the storyteller. But it’s such a long book.

From there I went over to the online version of today’s WSJ and came upon astronomer Mike Brown’s review of Michael Lemonick’s new book, Mirror Earth: The Search for our Planet’s Twin. I hadn’t imagined I was in the market for a popular science book, but Brown made me curious.

Mr. Lemonick has collected nearly all of the leading astronomers involved in the search for extrasolar planets—more than a dozen “exoplaneteers,” as he calls them—following them to mountain tops, lakeside lodges, roofs of buildings, and scattered offices around the country, to get them to explain what they’re doing and why. “Why” is particularly interesting, and most admit to the same basic motivation: finding life. Bill Borucki, the head of NASA’s planet-finding Kepler mission, wanted to “solve the problem of whether there’s life in the galaxy.” David Charbonneau, who is searching for tiny planets around tiny stars, desperately wants to know if there are “examples of life that arose independently from the life on the Earth.” Matt Holman, however, who finds multiple planets by their subtle gravitational interactions with one another, charmingly admits that he’s “motivated by precision”: With planetary dynamics, “you can make very careful, detailed predictions and detailed measurements and you can write down the equations of motion and I like that.”

Mr. Lemonick’s interactions with these scientists is the overwhelming strength of this very human story, but he also clearly explains the diverse tactics astronomers are using to try to find Earth twins. Some stare at 100,000 stars all at once hoping to pick out a fleeting dip in brightness as a perfectly aligned planet passes in front of its host star. Others carefully monitor individual stars for the minuscule push and pull that an Earthlike planet would exert. A few shift the entire focus to stars much smaller than the sun, where the visible effects of a planet would be correspondingly larger.

I read the free Amazon sample. I bought the book. I continued reading, and by early this morning, I was two-fifths through.

It’s easy reading. And fascinating. Plus, I even know two of the featured astronomers. I’ll soon have to decide whether to tackle A World on Fire. Or maybe Peter Englund’s The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War. Meanwhile, I’m having fun exploring the universe with Lemonick.

Categories: Books, Science

Dumplings

October 27, 2012 1 comment

The NYT food section three days ago had an article on some of the options for dumpling lovers in the city, along with a slideshow and the video I’ve embedded above. If you missed the video, I recommend you click on it and watch. It features the work of Joe Ng at RedFarm in the West Village and Dale Talde at Talde in Park Slope. (The slideshow is worth a look too.)

From the article:

In Park Slope, Dale Talde has engineered one of the most hunted-down bar snacks of 2012, a beer-friendly, street-cart collision known as the “pretzel dumpling.”

Inside, there’s some slightly cured pork. Outside, a process of boiling, brushing, pan-searing and baking creates a skin with the crust and chew of a hot pretzel. The dipping sauce echoes what you might get at a deli, or in a bag full of Chinese takeout: strong mustard.

For Mr. Talde, who grew up in Chicago and comes from a Filipino background, the goal was to summon a dish that represented a spirited take on what’s Asian and what’s American. “For us, it was a perfect way of blending the two,” he said.

If any place embodies the city’s neo-dumpling ethos, though, it’s RedFarm, whose West Village location has already spawned a forthcoming Upper West Side spinoff. At RedFarm, there are dumplings fashioned to look like Pac-Man characters and horseshoe crabs. There’s also an egg roll stuffed with pastrami.

“I call them whimsical,” said Ed Schoenfeld, the veteran restaurateur behind RedFarm. Spend an afternoon touring the kitchen, and Mr. Schoenfeld will rhapsodize about the artistry of the chef, Joe Ng. Those batter-crusted crabs might look like a cute gag, but there’s culinary precision (and greenmarket produce) inside them.

Pete Wells reviewed RedFarm back in March, giving it high praise and two stars.

It won’t be easy. They have plaintive black sesame-seed eyes, the dumplings at RedFarm, giving them the appearance of strange, adorable characters in a Miyazaki film. These flat-bellied duck and crab dumplings look like a school of wide-mouthed catfish; the pale-green ones, filled with shrimp and snow-pea leaves, like moon-faced tadpoles. Over here are Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde, spectral shrimp dumplings in blue, pink, yellow and white, chasing a Pac-Man made of sweet potato tempura with a blueberry for an eye.

Ignore their plaintive stares, and stare at them instead. Look how rounded they are, how their fillings weigh against their glossy wrappers like the summer juice pressing against the skin of a plum. They look firm, ripe, ready. You can tell that they’re going to be good.

But you don’t know how good they really are, and how good RedFarm can be, until you try one. And then, plaintive stares or no, you begin devouring these bundles of delight one by one.

RedFarm, in the West Village, is a collaboration between one of New York’s greatest Chinese chefs, Joe Ng, and one of its greatest Chinese restaurateurs, Ed Schoenfeld. Only one, Mr. Ng, is Chinese by birth. Mr. Schoenfeld is Chinese by calling, a Brooklyn-born Jew who long ago heard an inner voice urging him to bring better kung pao chicken to the people of Manhattan.

They have several clever ideas at RedFarm. First, the menu has been tailored for a Western palate, with none of the bland and slippery specialties that non-Chinese eaters find so enigmatic. It also seems designed for the age of Yelp, when the entire world can be split into either Nothing Special or OMG. RedFarm’s cooking runs hard toward OMG.

[snip]

For sensations like this, people have stood in line, and stood and stood, since the restaurant opened last August. RedFarm belongs to that post-Momofuku generation of restaurants made possible by the discovery that people will wait in line, open their wallets and put up with a reasonable amount of discomfort if the cooking consistently vaults above usual levels of intensity. No reservations are taken, except for large parties.

The décor, to stretch a definition, is provided mostly by potted plants and by Mr. Schoenfeld’s owlish eyeglasses, color-coordinated with his sweaters. Cartons of beer and liquor are stowed above the tables on raw-lumber platforms. (What design budget there was seems to have gone into buying one of those highly accomplished Japanese toilets.)

In exchange, all the flavors have been turned up as high as they can go. The dishes can be salty, or sweet, or rich. Often they are all three at once. At RedFarm, the food goes to 11.

The review has a slideshow too, also worth study.

We’ll be in New York in just days, but with limited time, so that part about waiting in line may mean we won’t get down to RedFarm. Next time.

Categories: Food, Restaurants

Headline of the Day

October 27, 2012 Leave a comment

[Tony Gentile/Reuters]

I was scanning the home page of the Sports Illustrated home page yesterday when I noticed the headline:

AC Milan owner sentenced to four years in prison

I should have known immediately who the AC Milan owner is. (I did know that AC Milan is one of the historic soccer powers in Europe.) But I didn’t, so I clicked on the link to learn more. The linked article had a slightly more informative headline:

AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi sentenced to four years in prison

Yes, of course. Berlusconi. Somehow, when I think of him, “AC Milan owner” is not the first description that comes to mind.

The article was brief. It opened, “AC Milan owner and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been sentenced to 4 years in jail on tax fraud charges, European news agency are reporting.” This was followed by a quote from another source, then the closing sentence, “Berlusconi’s decision not to run for a fourth term as prime minister and legal problems have come in AC Milan’s worst start in 71 years, leaving the club tied for 15th place and in danger of relegation.”

Talk about a narrow focus. I know. This is Sports Illustrated, not the New York Times. But still.

In contrast, the NYT coverage made no mention of AC Milan. Its opening: “A court in Milan convicted former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of tax fraud on Friday and sentenced him to four years in prison. Mr. Berlusconi is also currently on trial over charges that he paid for sex with an underage prostitute. He has denied the accusation.”

Categories: Journalism