Monday, May 28, 2012

Catching up on 52 Cookbooks: #27, Lobscouse and Spotted Dog

If I ever have time (i.e. if I'm fortunate enough to reach a point where I don't need a full-time day job on top of my writing career), I mean to take up historical reenacting.  I always seek out living history museums, and any chance to experience the food, drink, music, clothing, etc. that people from the past, particularly my own characters, might've enjoyed.

I love the dedicated geekery that leads to blogs like Inn at the Crossroads (medieval and modern recipes based on the cuisine of A Song of Ice and Fire, source material for Game of Thrones), and Outlander Kitchen (same thing for Diana Gabaldon's books).

So naturally I own Lobscouse and Spotted Dog: Which It's a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey/Maturin Novels.  But until this project I never actually cooked from it, and its home isn't with my cookbooks in the kitchen but on the research bookshelf in my office.  I grab it sometimes when I need a suitably historical/British dish for my characters to feast upon.  None of my other cookbooks talk about drowned babies or spotted dogs, after all.  (They're puddings, the old-fashioned boiled kind with lots of dried fruit.  I don't see the appeal, but, then, I'm the type who replaces raisins with chocolate chips whenever I make quickbreads or oatmeal cookies.  Doubtless my taste buds would've been different had I been born 200 years earlier.)

I wish I hadn't been neck-deep in edits when this came up in the rotation, because I'd love to try Strasburg Pie (bacon & foie gras baked in puff pastry), Ratafia Biscuits, or a Jam Roly-Poly, just to name a few, but I didn't have the time to source ingredients unavailable from Amazon Fresh or my local grocery or to devote most of a weekend afternoon to cooking.  So instead I went simple, but a simple dish Jack and Stephen ate all the time:

Yes, I made toasted cheese.  Simple as can be--I've heard it described as a simplified Welsh rabbit, but I thought of it as an open-faced grilled cheese.  You take bread, whatever kind is handy, along with cheese, whatever kind is handy.  I used Italian bread with a mix of cheddar and parmesan--the good stuff, imported-from-Europe foodie cheddar and parmesan, since I figure that's closer to what Jack and Stephen would've had.  You toast the bread a bit, then add the cheese and broil.  That's all there is to it.

Simple as can be, and gives you a sense of connection to the past.  I might prefer a chocolate cake to a drowned baby and pork tenderloin to soused hog's face, but bread and cheese are timeless.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Reading Update

Time for another reading update!  I notice I'm reading more nonfiction than fiction these days.  It isn't a deliberate decision, but simply a function of my library holds list.  I buy most of my fiction, since ebooks are generally quite affordable, and I'm willing to pay the occasional premium price to get the latest Gabaldon/GRR Martin/Spencer-Fleming/Bujold/etc. release in my hands the nanosecond it releases.  But once a book is on my Kindle, unless it's a sequel I've been awaiting for months or years, there's no pressure to read it immediately.

Nonfiction, on the other hand, I generally get from the library.  I'll hear an interesting author interview on NPR, whip out my library's iPhone app at the next long stop light, and put the book on hold.  Once I get it, I have three weeks to read with no possibility of renewal, since everyone else who heard that interview did the same thing, and you can't renew a book when there's a hold queue awaiting it.  So that book on the food of the future must be read now now now, while that romance or mystery I've heard good things about can wait.  Really, I need to think through whether I truly need to read every book that catches my interest on NPR (or the Daily Show, or the Economist), because I'd love to bring my fiction-nonfiction ratio back to something like 60-40 fiction, or at least 50-50.

45) Some Assembly Required, by Anne Lamott. Sort of a companion piece to Operating Instructions, Lamott's memoir of motherhood. In this book we see her first year as a grandmother. It's not as raw and gritty a book--you get the sense Lamott is holding back from a too harsh, too honest opinion of her son and his girlfriend and the assorted members of their extended families--but if you like her work, you'll probably enjoy this book, too.

46) Lone Survivors: How We Came to be the Only Humans on Earth, by Chris Stringer. I've been fascinated by paleoanthropology since I was a little kid reading about the Leakeys' discoveries in National Geographic and Time-Life books. Sometimes I think there's a version of me in an alternate universe who got her PhD in the field and hangs out with people like Chris Stringer at conferences. I wouldn't want to be anything but an author, but I do like to keep up with the field. This book is a good summary of the current state of the science from a Recent African Origins perspective.

47) Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins. I wasn't quite as blown away as I was by the first book in the series, in that I read it over several days rather than a single afternoon. But I'm still hooked, and Katniss makes a wonderful protagonist because she's so difficult despite her courage and resourcefulness. And I think Katniss Everdeen may be the best heroine name ever.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Congratulations to Alyssa Everett!

Today my long-time critique partner Alyssa Everett's first book from Carina Press released.  Technically, it's not her debut book, but that book is caught in the Dorchester death spiral, so this is the first book of hers that you can actually find for sale wherever ebooks are sold:

Alyssa has a lovely historical voice, and I recommend Ruined by Rumor to anyone who likes their historicals to pay attention to the mores of the time.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Catching up on 52 Cookbooks - #26, Good Eats 3

I've always enjoyed Good Eats, and I even met Alton Brown at a book signing once.  We have the entire set of his cookbooks, but I rarely cooked from them before this challenge.  So many of the Good Eats recipes just seem so involved for an everyday, very busy cook.  Don't get me wrong, I'd love to try something like Brown's coconut cake, but since cooking of necessity comes third behind writing and the day job among my commitments, I rarely have the time or energy for something of that magnitude.

While I doubt I'll be taking on his more complex projects, now that I've sampled a few of his recipes, I plan to try a lot more.  These recipes work, and he explains the steps with enough clarity to reassure the cook who's never tried a particular technique before.

For the midpoint of my random cooking year, I drew Good Eats 3: The Later Years.  After browsing, I settled on Oven Roasted Broccoli (see link for recipe), because Brown recommended it for people who normally find broccoli too bitter.  It's a definite winner.  Best-tasting broccoli I've ever had, without any of that icky bitter mushiness broccoli so easily gets, and only slightly more work than steaming or stir-frying.

Halfway through this project, I've already decided to promote some of my little-used cookbooks to the regular rotation--not least Alton Brown's--while others will get even less play.  In general, I'm finding my older cookbooks, especially those that are fundraiser collections rather than single-authored, just don't have a lot of appealing recipes.  That surprises me a little--I'd expected my taste buds to have more nostalgia for the kind of food I ate growing up.  It feels weird to even think of giving away The Moosewood Cookbook or the 1990's Joy of Cooking, but if I want vegetarian recipes or just a comprehensive encyclopedia of anything a home cook might venture on, my Mark Bittman books pretty much have that covered.

After I've finished my 52 cookbooks, I think I'll keep doing a random rotation--it's a fun challenge, and it gives me something to blog about--but I'll stick to those books I actually liked on this go-round.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

To Scrivener or not to Scrivener?

Any number of authors swear by Scrivener software, a word processor and project management tool that's designed specifically for long projects like books and screenplays.  I signed up for a free trial, and I just made my way through the tutorial.  So far I'm...dubious.

Basically, Scrivener gives you one big binder for a project.  Within it, you treat each chapter or scene of your manuscript as a separate file, though you can easily compile them into a single view. You can tag the scenes in various ways, e.g. by point-of-view character or setting.  You also have separate sections where you can keep character notes or research files.

I can see the good in all of this.  So why aren't I rushing to start my new project in Scrivener instead of good ol' MS Word?

It's purely a gut reaction.  I don't claim any of this is rational at all.  But it just feels WRONG to me to treat my manuscript as a bunch of discrete scenes or chapters rather than an organic whole--albeit a fluid one that can and should change right up until my editor and I agree that it's ready.

Believe me, I realize how strange this sounds...but the manuscript is sort of a sacred space to me as I'm working on it.  The Manuscript is the Manuscript, the Manuscript is one, and I don't WANT my research or my visual inspiration or my notes in the same file.  None of those are the Manuscript--they're commentary.  I even like keeping much of that not-the-manuscript stuff off my computer.  I like to plot on a whiteboard, and I sometimes use my whole office door as a sort of canvas for post-it-notes with scene notes and character arcs.  I'm a kinesthetic learner and thinker, and I need to step away from the monitor, pace, rearrange my post-its, pull a pile of research books off the shelf and spread them out on the coffee table, etc.  I'm sure the Scrivener corkboard and research files are more efficient, but it doesn't have that same physicality, and it just doesn't feel like ME.

On the other hand, I do want to learn to be a faster and more efficient writer, so maybe I'm being too quick to dismiss a tool that might help me move in that direction.  Yet...I wonder how much you can really force your process in a direction that's unnatural for you?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Catching up on 52 Cookbooks - #25, Enough to Feed an Army

When I was an undergrad at Penn, not quite when dinosaurs roamed the planet, but I swear there were still woolly mammoths about (OK, OK, it was 20 years ago), my brother was a math instructor at West Point.  While they were there, my sister-in-law contributed to Enough to Feed an Army: the West Point Officers Wives' Club Cookbook. 

It isn't listed on Amazon, so no link, but it's a typical compilation cookbook, with West Point facts and images interspersed here and there.  I got my pumpkin and banana bread recipes from it, though I use chocolate chips instead of the suggested walnuts.  This time, I decided I wanted to pick a vegetable recipe, so I settled on:

Warm Green Bean and Pancetta Salad

1 1/2 lbs. green beans, trimmed
5 oz. pancetta, diced
1/3 c. minced shallots
1 T chopped fresh rosemary or 1 1/2 t. dried rosemary (I used fresh, since we have some growing in our front yard)
3 T olive oil
2 T plus 1 t. fresh lemon juice (I interpreted this as "juice of 1 lemon")

Cook beans in large pot of boiling, salted water until crisp-tender; drain. Rinse with cold water and drain well. Pat dry. 

(I chose to steam the beans instead, since I prefer my beans very lightly cooked.)

Cook pancetta in heavy large skillet over medium heat until crisp, stirring often.  Transfer pancetta to paper towels.  Pour off all but 1 1/2 T fat.  Add shallots and chopped rosemary to skillet and cook over medium heat 2 min, stirring often. Add beans and stir to coat.  Add oil and lemon juice; stir until beans are heated through.  Season with salt and pepper.  Sprinkle with pancetta.  

The beans turned out quite tasty.  They're not enough better than my usual preparation, which is just to stir fry till hot in a little olive oil with garlic, salt, and pepper, to replace it for everyday meals.  But I can see myself making it as a side dish at a dinner party someday.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Catching up on 52 Cookbooks - #24, The Pie and Pastry Bible

(I've been cooking from a random cookbook each week even when I've been too busy with edits to blog about it, so now that I'm back in the land of the blogging I'll be posting a month's worth of catch-up entries.)

I don't think of myself as a pie person even though the last few years I've made the pecan and pumpkin pies at our family Christmas celebrations, and depending on the season I often make a pecan or a berry pie when we have dinner guests.  You see, a real pie person would make her own crusts, and for some reason homemade pie crusts intimidate me.  I feel the same way about yeast breads.  I'm game for anything else that's within a normal home cook's repertoire, but those two feel like you need a PhD in advanced cookery to tackle, or something. I don't claim this is rational. Maybe next year my culinary challenge will be "overcome yeast phobia."

My mom could do both, naturally.  She rarely baked bread, but she made pies ALL THE TIME, always made her own crusts, and looked with scorn upon ready-made pie shells.  I mean, next thing you'd be making your cakes from a MIX.

So now, whenever anyone praises my pecan pie, I'm all self-deprecating and say, "Oh, thanks, but I cheated.  I used a store-bought crust. My mom would've made the crust, too." And when The Pie and Pastry Bible came up in the rotation, I felt preemptively guilty, because I knew I'd end up cheating and using a ready-made crust.

But I did not!  Instead I chose to make...


5 c. baking apples, peeled & sliced 1/2 inch thick (~3 large)
1 1/2 t. freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 T light brown sugar
2 T granulated sugar
3/4 t. ground cinnamon
1/8 t. nutmeg, pref. freshly grated
1/8 t. salt
1 T unsalted butter

2 T + 2 t. light brown sugar
1 T. sugar
1/2 c. walnut halves
1/16 t. salt
3/4 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/4 c. unsalted butter, melted
3/4 t. vanilla extract

EQUIPMENT: a 9-inch pie pan

Preheat oven to 400 F. Set oven rack on 2nd level from the bottom.

In a large bowl, combine apples, lemon juice, sugars, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt and toss to mix. Allow the mixture to sit for 30 minutes to an hour.

In a food processor, pulse together sugars, nuts, salt, and cinnamon until the nuts are coarsely chopped.  Add the flour, butter, and vanilla and pulse until the mixture is coarse and crumbly.  Empty into a small bowl and with your fingertips lightly pinch the mixture to form little clumps.

Transfer the apples and their juices to a colander suspended over a bowl to capture the liquid. The mixture will exude about 1/4 c. of liquid.

In a small saucepan, reduce this liquid, over medium-high heat, with the butter, to 2 T.  Pour the hot liquid over the apples, tossing them gently.

Transfer the apples to the baking dish.  Pour in all the remaining juice.  Cover the dish with foil and make a 1-inch slash in the middle.  Bake the apples for 30 minutes.

Remove the foil and sprinkle the surface evenly with the topping.  Continue baking for 20-25 minutes or until the topping is crisp and golden brown, the fruit juices are bubbling thickly around the edges, and the apples feel tender but not mushy when a cake tester or small sharp knife is inserted.

Cool on a rack and serve warm or at room temperature.

It came out looking like this:

Not the most photogenic dessert ever.  It was reasonably tasty, though not enough so to justify the amount of work that went into it. It would've been far better with some vanilla or dulce de leche ice cream, though.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What I've read while editing

I turned in my developmental edits for An Infamous Marriage on Sunday night, so I figure it's time to return to the land of the blogging.

The edits kept me too busy to read much, but over the past couple weeks I did finish five books toward my goal of at least 75 books this year:

40) Bar Sinister, by Sheila Simonson. Simonson published four traditional Regencies about a linked set of characters, and I've now read them all. I almost hesitate to call them romances--the love story here is more a subplot, an undercurrent, than anything else. But Simonson has a knack for creating fully realized communities of characters, and I'm always pleased to run across another writer who knows her Peninsular War and Waterloo military history cold.

41) How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm, by Mei-Ling Hopgood. Explores a variety of childcare practices around the world that would be mutually appalling to members of other cultures. Fascinating if you're at all interested in cultural anthropology, and gives the overall cheering message that children are fairly resilient and adaptable.

42) The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, by Caroline Preston. Coming-of-age story of a 1920's New England girl, "a novel in pictures" featuring vintage memorabilia. I don't think I'd enjoy a steady diet of such books--most of the time I'd rather read the words and let my imagination supply the pictures--but this was a fun way to pass a sunny Sunday afternoon reading out on the deck. That said, I get so TIRED of stories where a young woman goes off to the big city, only to ultimately return to her hometown and the boy she left behind. For some us the big city really IS that much better than what we left behind.

43) Capturing the Silken Thief, by Jeannie Lin. I often think the very short novellas in the Harlequin Historical Undone line are too short to convince me of the couple's love and commitment unless the couple already know each other well--reunion stories, friends-to-lovers, and the like. But I make an exception for Jeannie Lin's Undones, because she makes me believe the hero and heroine's chemistry will have staying power, and I enjoy the unusual Tang Dynasty China setting.

44) The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal. Part of my never-ending quest to make myself more efficient at time management and less stressed. I checked it out from the library, but I think I'm going to buy the Kindle edition and work through the chapters slowly. It's well-written and full of scientific, evidence-based insight on what works and what doesn't when one is trying to cut back on a self-destructive behavior or work harder toward a goal--e.g. shame and guilt are pretty much useless as motivators to change. (INWARD shame, that is--threat of public exposure has been shown as a useful deterrent to things like shoplifting or hiring a prostitute.) Also, it's better to acknowledge the fact that one is, say, craving chocolate or anxious about going to the dentist than to tell yourself if you really wanted to lose weight you wouldn't want chocolate, or that if you weren't such a coward you wouldn't have this pesky dental phobia.