A few weeks ago I bartered a 10″ chef knife for a few books from my friend, Sam who works at W.W. Norton. One of the books he gave me was Tom Nissley’s A Reader’s Book of Days, which will be available in book stores tomorrow (November 4). There hasn’t been a day since I got this book that I haven’t referred to it at least once, and there have been quite a few days where I’ve sat with it for hours, unable to tear myself away. The amount of time and research that must have gone in to this book, which provides readers with literary anecdotes and historical backgrounds for every single day of the year, is mind-boggling (although it seems less-so when you find out that Nissley is an eight-time Jeopardy champion, and clearly able to retain information in a way that most of us could never dream of).
Each chapter begins with an overview of the month it chronicles. Nissley calls November “the anti-April: gray and dreary, the beginning of the end of things rather than their rebirth. It’s the month you hunker down–that is, if you don’t give up entirely.” It is the “damp and drizzly November” in Ishmael’s soul that drives him to leave Manhattan for New Bedford, seeking “the openness of oceans.” It is in “implacable November,” Nissley reminds us, that Dickens’s Bleakhouse opens, “with dogs and horses mired in mud, pedestrians ‘jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper.’” Jane Eyre, too begins on “a drear November day,” with “a pale blank mist and cloud and ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast,” and it’s on a “dreary night in November,” as “rain pattered dismally against the pains,” that Victor Frankenstein “first sees the spark of life in the watery eyes of his creation.” It may be true when Meg from Little Women says that “November is the most disagreeable month in the whole year,” but doesn’t the dreariness feel much more manageable when you’re snuggled up against it with Melville or Dickens or Shelley?
Each chapter has a list of recommended reading pertinent to that particular month–for November, Nissley recommends The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins, The Ice Storm by Rick Moody, The Death of Jim Loney by James Welch, A Century of November by W.D. Wetherell, New Grub Street by George Gissing and, of course, Dickens’ Bleakhouse and Shelley’s Frankenstein. Every individual day of the month has a list of literary births and deaths and a catalogue of events in literary history that happened on that day. It’s a great way not only to buff up on your knowledge of literary events and the lives of your favorite authors, but also to discover new reading material.
Just in case a good book recommendation isn’t enough to cure the damp and drizzly November in your own soul, don’t worry, I’ve also got some cheddar cauliflower soup for you. I know I’ve already written about a weird kind of cauliflower in this series, but I can’t help myself, cheddar cauliflower is just too hard to ignore in the markets right now. As a kid I was always cauliflower-phobic, and I admit that the white variety still creeps me out some. As if white-cauliflower’s weird, anemic translucence alone wasn’t enough to turn me away from it forever, this summer I choked on a piece of it so violently at my best friend’s wedding that I had to get Heimliched by a fellow bridesmaid (thanks, Zander!). My mascara ran and I looked like a sad clown for the remainder of the party, but I’m still here, so that’s good.
Despite its name and the fact that it looks like a bushel of cheese popcorn, cheddar cauliflower (unfortunately) does not taste like cheddar. It gets its beautiful yolk-yellow color from an excess of beta-carotene stored in its florets, which also gives it 25% more Vitamin A than regular cauliflower. It was discovered in Canada in 1970 and cross-bred with white cauliflower by Cornell’s agricultural science department to give us the cheddar cauliflower we see in the market today. It’s slightly sweeter than traditional cauliflower, a little creamier too, and perfect in this simple, bone-warming soup.
Double Cheddar Cauliflower Soup
Makes 2 quarts (serves 4 hungry people)
2 tbs butter
1 tbs olive oil
2 cloves garlic, smashed
2 small onions, roughly chopped
1 1/2 pounds cheddar cauliflower (two small heads), cored and de-stemmed
1/4 cup heavy cream
4 cups chicken stock
the leaves of 5 thyme sprigs
the leaves of 2 sprigs of rosemary
8 oz sharp cheddar cheese, grated
salt and pepper to taste
Melt butter and olive oil in a medium, heavy-bottomed sauce pan. Add garlic and onions and cook over medium heat until soft and golden-brown—about 5 minutes. Add cauliflower florets and cook 7-10 minutes, or until cauliflower is softened. Add heavy cream, chicken stock, thyme and rosemary and simmer lightly 10-15 minutes. Pour soup into a high-powered blender and blend until very smooth (you will probably have to do this in two batches). Transfer soup from the blender into a bowl and stir the shredded cheddar in until it’s melted and incorporated throughout (if you want your soup to be extra smooth you can run it through a fine-mesh-seive before mixing in the cheddar, but you will sacrifice some of the soup’s thickness and body if you do). Season soup with salt and pepper to taste and garnish with spicy pepitas (recipe follows).
Spicy Toasted Pepitas
Makes 1 cup
1 egg white
1 cup pepitas (raw green pumpkin seeds)
1/4 tsp cayenne
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 300F. In a medium bowl whisk egg white until foamy. Add pepitas to egg white and toss until coated. Mix dry spices together in a separate bowl, sprinkle over pepitas and toss to coat. Spread evenly on a baking sheet covered in parchment and bake until golden brown—7-10 minutes.