What to cook for Raymond Chandler on his birthday? If he’s known for anything vaguely digestible today, it’s Terry Lennox’s gin gimlet recipe from The Big Sleep: “half gin and half Rose’s lime juice and nothing else.” Sometimes that can be the basis of a whole birthday dinner menu, but it’s usually unintentional (and ill-advised, if my “popcorn and whiskey” birthday was any indication).
But it turns out Chandler had more than a few recipes up his sleeve – maybe even a cookbook’s worth. While working on The Long Goodbye in La Jolla, California, he wrote to editor Dale Warren with another surprising proposal. “Somebody really ought to write a cookbook and put in all the things that the regular cookbooks leave out, the things which, if you’re a beginner, the cookbooks don’t tell you,” he said. “Also, any decent cookbook should have a few special recipes, a touch of the unique. And this I could easily supply.”
Seen through his letters, Chandler becomes the Mark Bittman of La Jolla. He’s minimalist in his approach to food (his recipe for pork chops: “Cook them in their own fat, they bring everything with them that is necessary except salt and pepper.”). But he’s also deeply critical of Americans’ slide into non-cooking, 50 years ahead of the curve. He scorns his neighbor’s dependence on “a deep freeze unit in his garage where he keeps enough food for six months … Most of the other food he eats comes ready-prepared and half-chewed.” If you think that’s harsh, Chandler goes on: “I sometimes wonder what we are here for. Certainly not to use our minds.” It’s a relief he wasn’t around to see the rise of the Hot Pocket.
Chandler would have turned 124 today; I’ll celebrate my own birthday later this week. No popcorn and whiskey for me this time around. We’re older now, and wiser. We use our minds. We plan our menus. And there won’t be anything frozen or ready-made, although there may well be a gimlet or two.
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It’s probably best for everyone that the imagined Raymond Chandler Cookbook never came to fruition. Although he liked the idea, Chandler knew he didn’t have the chops to pull it off, and described his proposed dishes with tongue firmly in cheek. Consider his recipe for baked apples, “vociferously admired by practically everyone who owes me money” – a description that could have been ripped from one of his stories.
But Chandler does mention his one signature dish: “Swordfish Mascagni.” Although he doesn’t elaborate further, the name brought to mind Pietro Mascagni’s most famous opera, Cavalleria rusticana, set in a Sicilian fishing village. Sicilian-style swordfish is a classic preparation, one that Chandler might easily have imitated in his own version – while still adding his own “touch of the unique.”
4 (6-8 ounce) swordfish steaks
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon red chile flakes
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 shallots, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1/3 cup pitted black olives
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/3 cup toasted pine nuts
5 or 6 large basil leaves, coarsely chopped
1. Season swordfish on both sides with salt, pepper, and red chile flakes. In a large nonstick skillet, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat. Add swordfish in a single layer (you may need to do this in multiple batches) and cook until golden, about 2 minutes per side. Remove from pan and set aside. Lower heat to medium.
2. To the same pan, add remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Add shallots and cook, stirring frequently, until translucent and fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add garlic and cook 1 minute more. Add wine, tomatoes, olives, and oregano. Stir to combine.
3. Return swordfish to the pan. Simmer 3 minutes, or until fish is cooked through and wine has reduced by half. Remove from heat. Add toasted pine nuts and basil. Serve immediately, with lemon wedges.