Tuesday, February 28, 2012

More books read

I'm continuing on my journey to read 75 books in 2012. At the moment I'm on pace for 180, but I expect that to slow down soon. If nothing else, all but one of my eight Rita books was on the short side, while War and Peace, which I plan to start after I turn in my manuscript for An Infamous Marriage, is...not.

24) Social Q's, by Philip Galanes. Etiquette for today's world by the author of the New York Times advice column. I heard the author interviewed on Fresh Air and decided to pick this one up at the library. Galanes doesn't have the same level of insight, wit, and elegant prose as Miss Manners, but this was a fun, quick read. Galanes's advice boils down to chill out, think before speaking, and tolerate others' foibles as you would have them tolerate your own.

25) Book Which Must Not Be Named (6 of 8). I'm going to continue to be a good judge and not say anything that might reveal the identity of this Rita entry, but suffice it to say it was a disappointment compared to the rest of my panel.

26) Season of Our Dreams: the 2010 Auburn Tigers, by Van Allen Plexico and John Ringer. As a sports fan, I have a knack for falling in love with snakebitten teams and athletes. In baseball, Mr. Fraser and I hold a 16-game plan (i.e. partial season ticket strip) with the Mariners, who in 2001 put together the best regular season EVER, only to fall short in the playoffs. Ever since, they've either outright sucked or flirted with contention only to fall apart down the stretch. My all-time favorite figure skater is Michelle Kwan, she who won everything BUT Olympic gold.

And then there's Auburn. I'm not an alumna (I went to Penn, which is not to be confused with Penn State and is not at ALL a football school), but I grew up in Alabama, in an Auburn family, and it's my oldest brother's alma mater. Living thousands of miles from my native state, I find myself asserting the Southern part of my identity on fall Saturdays, watching SEC football and cheering on my Tigers. But if the SEC West is the AL East (and really, we are--I can understand why the rest of the college football world hates us), Auburn is the Red Sox to Alabama's Yankees.

But in 2010, at last, it all went RIGHT. Improbably, awesomely right. Season of Our Dreams chronicles that year, largely by excerpting blog posts Plexico and Ringer made during the course of the year. There isn't much context in the form of game summaries--it relies on the reader to remember all that--but it made for a fun stroll down memory lane, allowing me to relive one of my teams FINALLY winning the big one during what for me is the lull between football ending and baseball starting again.

27) Book Which Must Not Be Named (7 of 8). Like my fifth Rita book, this one pleasantly surprised me. I'm not this book's target market, but I can recognize and reward tight, subtle writing and solid execution when I see it.

28) Book Which Must Not Be Named (8 of 8). My last Rita book was just plain average.

29) Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Lost Adventures. Another graphic novel, more like a graphic anthology, to tide me over till The Legend of Korra comes out. This one had some nice character vignettes, all set in the same time frame as the original TV series. I especially liked Sokka challenging Zuko to "swordbending," and really all the Zuko interactions from after he switched sides for good--there were all these tiny, subtle little touches where you could see he was simultaneously the most mature and the most fragile and damaged of the team. Mm, characterization, and in a kids' show/comic!

30) No Vulgar Hotel: The Desire and Pursuit of Venice, by Judith Martin. I picked this up because the author is better known as Miss Manners, whom I've already praised above. Now I've learned that she's a serious Venetophile, spending a portion of every year there. She writes an enjoyable, anecdotal love letter to Venice that didn't quite make me share her passion, but did give me a vicarious taste of it. (I haven't been there yet, and while it's certainly on my list of places I want to go, I don't feel the same hunger I have to finally see Paris or Rome, and I don't think I'll love it the way I do London or Edinburgh.)

Monday, February 20, 2012

52 Cookbooks - Week 19, The Moosewood Cookbook

The Moosewood Cookbook, by Mollie Katzen, looks interesting, but over the years my attempts to cook from its selection of vegetarian recipes have mostly turned out odd yet bland.

When it came up in last week's random draw, I headed straight to the dessert section, since I had an overabundance of Granny Smith apples I wanted to bake something with before they went bad. I also had an extra pie shell from when I made chocolate-pecan pie back at Christmastime, so my selection was a no-brainer:

Apple Custard Pie

2 c. peeled & thinly sliced tart apples
1 unbaked 9-in pie crust
4 eggs
1/4 to 1/3 c. brown sugar or honey (I used maple syrup, which was listed as an optional variation)
1 c. yogurt
1 t. vanilla extract
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. salt

1) Preheat oven to 375.
2) Spread the apple slices evenly over the pie crust.
3) Combine all remaining ingredients in a food processor or blender and whip until frothy. Pour this custard over the apples.
4) Bake for 45 min. or until solid in the center. Cool for at least 1 hour before slicing. Best at room temperature or cold.

Here's what it looked like. The picture doesn't quite do justice to how strange the creamy custard filling looked compared to an ordinary apple pie.

How did it taste, you ask? Well, it's a seriously weird pie. (Not to be confused with Serious Pie, which you must try next time you happen to be in Seattle.) Odd, yet bland.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Pinched nerve update

I realized I hadn't posted about my pinched nerve in awhile, so...a quick update:

It's better. Mostly. I still get regular flareups of shoulder and arm pain, but if I stay on top of my home exercises and watch my posture, I can manage it and still write and work a full schedule at my day job. I still avoid really heavy lifting, but I can manage everyday things--carrying groceries and the like--with no real issues. I can cook almost anything I want, but I've learned I'll regret chopping-intensive recipes the next day, especially if they involve tough root vegetables. (This despite the fact the pain is on my non-dominant side.)

I don't know if I'll ever be 100% again, but I'm hoping it's like my right ankle, which I severely sprained twice within a year as a high school senior and college freshman. Throughout my college years that ankle ached, popped, and would twist out from under me if I put my foot a smidge wrong. But it gradually improved, and now, many years later, it's only slightly weaker than my never-injured left ankle. Meanwhile, even though my shoulder and arm aren't perfect, I haven't missed any work time because of them in months, and I'm on pace to turn my next manuscript in time, so it's all good. At least, it's all good enough.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

52 Cookbooks - Week 18, The Best Recipes in the World

Next up in my random draw of cookbooks was The Best Recipes in the World, by Mark Bittman. It's an ambitious survey of world cuisine for the home cook. Bittman goes relatively light on French and Italian recipes, figuring most skilled American cooks already know those cuisines, in order to focus on everywhere else. I could've gone Caribbean, Greek, or Eastern European, to name only a few, but I chose Asian recipes for my weeknight dinner. (And, as always on weeknights, I forgot to take pictures.)

Two-Way Chicken
(I chose the Thai variation--adding sugar and nam pla would've made it more Vietnamese.)

2 1/2 - 3 lbs chicken parts
3 T soy sauce
1 T minced garlic
1 T peeled and minced fresh ginger
1 t hot pepper flakes
1 T neutral oil
Lime wedges for serving, optional
Chopped fresh cilantro for garnish

1) Place the chicken in a large bowl with the soy sauce, garlic, ginger, and hot pepper flakes. Toss well to coat and proceed or cover and refrigerate for up to a day.

2) Place the oil in a large, deep skillet over med-high heat. After a minute or so, when the oil is hot, remove the chicken from the marinade and add it, skin side down, to the skillet. Brown it well on both sides, rotating and turning the pieces as necessary, about 10 minutes. Lower the heat and continue to cook, turning as necessary, until the chicken is cooked thorugh, about 15 minutes longer, removing the pieces as they finish cooking. (It took them more like 25 min. to finish, and I was only using drumsticks and thighs.)

3) Serve the chicken with lime wedges, hot, warm, or at room temperature, garnished with cilantro.

This was a pretty good recipe, not something grand and fancy I'd want to serve to company while showing off, but a pleasant weeknight dinner for a day I have time to do more than boil spaghetti or scramble eggs. For a vegetable side I chose:

Quick-Braised Root Vegetables with Hoisin

2 T neutral oil
1 T chopped garlic
1 T peeled and minced fresh ginger
4 med carrots, roughly chopped
4 parsnips, peeled and roughly chopped
2 celery stalks, roughly chopped
2 T hoisin sauce
1 T soy sauce
3 scallions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths

1) Heat a wok or large skillet with a lid over med-high heat for about 3 minutes, or until it is quite hot. Add the oil, garlic, and ginger and stir for 10 seconds. Add the vegetables and cook, stirring, until they begin to brown, 2-3 min.

2) Lower the heat to med and add 1/2 c. water or stock (I used chicken stock to add a little more flavor), along with the hoisin sauce and soy sauce; stir. Cover and cook over med-low heat until the vegetables are tender, about 10 min. Uncover, raise the heat to high, and add the scallions. Cook, stirring, until the liquid has all but evaporated, just a couple of minutes. Serve immediately.

Now, this was an excellent recipe, and the quickest, most flavorful preparation of fresh root vegetables I've run across.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Another week and a half of reading

I'm a bit behind on blogging thanks to a crazy-busy week, so here's what I've read since last time:

I just got back my favorite parts of Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga, which I'd loaned to Rose Lerner for several months, so this month so far I've done more re-reading than reading. (Unfortunately, I failed to hook her--apparently my tactic of giving her a summary of the early books and major characters, then handing her Memory, Komarr, and A Civil Campaign backfired, because she wasn't familiar enough with the characters to get excited about them. I see her point, and she's interested enough to want to try again from the beginning of the series. I only tried starting her midway because to me Memory is where the series goes from good fun to flat-out awesome, and also because the more Barrayar-focused books are more fun for those of us who generally read more fantasy, romance, and mystery than science fiction.

I'm not counting re-reads when I just sort of skim a favorite for relaxation, but with these I'm reading almost every word, so...

19) Memory. Not quite a coming-of-age story, more a coming-of-maturity one. With one of my all-time favorite lines: "The one thing you can't trade for your heart's desire is your heart."

20) Book Which Must Not Be Named (5 of 8): Another Rita entry that I ended up enjoying quite a bit and scoring well despite it using certain characters and tropes I normally avoid like the plague.

21) Komarr. I love how Ekaterin's strength gradually reveals itself over the course of the book. I remember the first time I read it thinking, "Really? She's Miles's One True Love?" for the first half of the book, but by the end changing to, "OH, yeah. She's perfect."

22) A Civil Campaign. Just plain fun, and even though it's shelved as science fiction it's one of my favorite romance novels of all time.

23) I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced, by Nujood Ali and Delphine Minoui. The story of the girl you may have heard of on the news a few years back, married against her will at age 10 in Yemen, who ran away to a courthouse and successfully petitioned for divorce. A straightforward, harrowing read, all the more so because Nujood is still only 12 or 13, living with her none-too-pleasant or progressive family, so it's by no means certain she'll get the education and independence she longs for.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

52 Cookbooks - Week 17, 1997 Joy of Cooking

I'm the proud owner of two editions of the Joy of Cooking--a 1997 edition, which my parents gave me for Christmas in 1998, the year before Mr. Fraser and I got married, and the 1951 one, which I inherited from my mom. Last week I drew the 1997 version. I haven't cooked from it much in the last 14 years, partly because it's just so dauntingly encyclopedic.

But at the front of the book are a couple pages of menu suggestions, and I decided to choose one--beef stew, roasted garlic spread on baguette slices, and apple-spice cake.

Beef Stew

- 2 lb. boneless stewing beef, such as chuck, short-rib meat, or bottom round, cut into 2-inch cubes

Season the meat with:
- 1/2 to 1 t. dried herbs (thyme, marjoram, savory, oregano, and/or basil)--I used all but the savory
- 1/2 t. salt
- 1/2 t. black pepper

Dredge the meat with:
- 1/2 c. all-purpose flour

Shake off any excess flour. Heat in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat:
- 2 T olive or vegetable oil, bacon fat, beef drippings, or other fat--I used canola oil

Add the meat in batches and brown on all sides, being careful not to crowd the pan or scorch the meat. Remove with a slotted spoon. Pour off all but 2 T of fat from pan (add more if needed). Add:
- 1/2 c. chopped onions
- 1/4 c. chopped carrots
- 1/4 c. chopped celery
- 1/4 c. chopped leeks (optional)
- 2 T chopped garlic (optional)

(I used the garlic, but not the leeks.)

Cover and cook, stirring often, over medium heat until the onions are softened, about 5 minutes. Add:
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/2 to 1 t. of the same herbs used to season the meat
- 1/2 t. salt
- 1/2 t. ground black pepper

Add enough to cover the meat at least halfway:
- 2 or 3 c. beef or chicken stock, dry red or white wine, or beer--I used 3 c. of red wine

Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer over low heat until the meat is fork-tender, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Add:
- 2 to 3 carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
- 3 to 4 boiling potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
- 2 turnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
- 2 parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks.

Cover and cook until the vegetables are tender, 35-40 min. Remove the pan from the heat and skim off any fat from the surface. Taste and adjust the seasonings. If you wish, thicken the sauce by stirring together and whisking into the stew:
- 1 to 1/2 T kneaded butter--I did not add

Simmer, stirring, until thickened. Garnish with:
- Chopped fresh parsley

It looked like this:

As you can see, I forgot the parsley garnish. It was a long Sunday afternoon of cooking, and by then I was pretty tired.

Unfortunately, the turnip completely spoiled it for me. It had a sort of bitter, metallic taste that ruined the dish, at least for my taste buds. Mr. Fraser found it edible, if unexciting. I'd probably like it OK if I substituted extra potatoes and carrots for the turnips, but for that much chopping and cooking I expect more than "like it OK." The roasted garlic smeared on bread was good, though--how could it not be? I'm not including the recipes for those two, because I just roasted the former the way I always do, and bought a baguette from my friendly local grocer.

Dessert was:

Apple Spice Cake

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease and flour one 8x8 inch pan or line the bottom with wax or parchment paper.

Whisk together thoroughly in a large bowl, pinching out any lumps in the brown sugar:
- 1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
- 1 c. packed dark or light brown sugar
- 1 t. baking soda
- 1 t. ground cinnamon
- 1 t. ground cloves
- 1/2 t. freshly grated or ground nutmeg
- 1/2 t. salt

Add and stir together until smooth:
- 1 c. buttermilk
- 1/2 c. vegetable oil
- 2 T. rum or brandy (optional)--I used rum
- 1 t. vanilla

Stir in:
- 1 c. chopped apples
- 1/2 c. chopped walnuts or pecans--I used pecans

Scrape batter into the pan and spread evenly. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes clean, 40-45 min. Let cool in the pan on a rack for 10 min. Slide a thin knife around the cake to detach it from the pan. Invert the cake and peel off the paper liner, if using. Let cool right side up on the rack. Serve warm plain or with vanilla ice cream. Or let cool completely and frost with white, butterscotch, or penuche icing.

I served it with vanilla ice cream, and it was a sophisticated, subtly spicy dessert which also served for breakfast the next two mornings.