Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Random Cookbooks - Julia's Kitchen Wisdom & Good Eats 2

Catching up on two weeks' worth of random cooking:

Last week I drew Julia's Kitchen Wisdom, a brief book by Julia Child focusing on basic techniques of everyday cooking. Because I'm trying to eat more fish, I chose:

Fish Fillets Poached in White Wine

For sole, trout, and other thin boneless fillets, 5-6 ounces per serving. Cooking time: about 10 minutes.

For 6 fillets. Score the skin sides of the fish and season with salt and white pepper. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of minced shallots in the bottom of a buttered baking dish; lay in the fillets, skin side down and lightly overlapping. Scatter another tablespoon of shallots on top. Pour around them 2/3 c. of dry white and 1/3 c. of fish stock, chicken stock, or water. Cover with buttered wax paper and bring just to the simmer on top of the stove, then set in a preheated 350F oven. The fish is done in 7-8 minutes, when just lightly springy to the touch and opaque. Drain cooking juices into a saucepan and boil down rapidly until almost syrupy. For a simple sauce, whisk in droplets of lemon juice and minced parsley and, if you wish, a tablespoon or two of butter. Spoon over the fish and serve at once.

I used trout and chicken stock. This turned out pretty well, though I think I like my trout better sauteed or pan-fried than poached. I'm finding trout and salmon are my favorite fish despite their strong fishy taste because they have such a nice, meaty texture, and the poaching gives it more of that soft, flaky fish texture I'm not so crazy about.

(I really wish I could wave a magic wand and make myself like fish and shellfish better. I'm going to France, Spain, and Portugal next year. My taste buds are looking forward to the inland bits more than the coastal ones, which makes me sad.)

This week Alton Brown's Good Eats 2: The Middle Years came up, and I chose:

Bananas Foster

2 T. unsalted butter
1/4 c. dark brown sugar
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1/2 tsp nutmeg, freshly grated
1 T. banana liqueur (I substituted water)
2 under-ripe bananas, cut in half lengthwise
1/4 c. dark rum
1/2 tsp grated orange zest

1. Melt the butter in a 10-inch heavy skillet over low heat. Add the brown sugar, allspice, and nutmeg and stir till the sugar dissolves. Add the liqueur and bring the sauce to a simmer.

2. Add the bananas and cook for 1 minute on each side, carefully spooning sauce over the bananas as they are cooking. Remove the bananas from the pan to a serving dish.

3. Return the sauce to a simmer and carefully add the rum. If the sauce is very hot, the alcohol will flame on its own. If not, using a stick lighter, carefully ignite the sauce and continue cooking until the flame dies out, 1-2 minutes. If the sauce is too thin, cook 1-2 minutes more, until it is syrupy in consistency. Add the orange zest and stir to combine. Immediately spoon the sauce over the bananas and serve with waffles, crepes, or ice cream.

I had some leftover plain polenta I needed to use up, so I cut it into rounds and sauteed it in butter to use as a base for the bananas foster and frozen yogurt. It was a good idea, but I cut the polenta a little too thick, and I probably should've sweetened it a bit when cooking instead of counting on the sauce and frozen yogurt to provide all the sugar needed. Still, on the whole, this was a quick, delicious dessert which I will make again.

Monday, January 27, 2014

2014 Reading, Books 10-12

Apparently a typical American adult reads 5 books per year. I sometimes feel like a slacker when I know readers who regularly manage 200 or more in a year, but that article puts my ~100-120/year pace in perspective...

10) Rita Book #2: Not as fun a read as Book #1, unfortunately.

11) Rilla of Ingleside, by LM Montgomery.

I've read this book multiple times, but I decided I could count up to one re-read per month this year as long as it's a true beginning-to-end re-read rather than dipping in and out to read a few favorite scenes. Rilla is the 8th book of the well-beloved Anne of Green Gables series, but it's unique within the series for its strong and specific grounding in world events--specifically, World War I and the Canadian homefront experience.

The heroine, Anne's youngest daughter Rilla, turns 15 on the eve of the Great War's outbreak. She's finally old enough for dances, beaux, and the like and can hardly wait to experience the joys of almost-grown-up life. But instead she spends four years waiting at home while her brothers, sweetheart, and childhood playmates one by one go off to war. Over the course of the war she's transformed from a rather lazy and frivolous girl into a hardworking, capable young woman as she runs her village's Junior Red Cross and brings up a "war baby" whose mother dies while her husband is away fighting.

Reading this Kindle version, I kept encountering little snippets of description and dialogue I couldn't remember from my old paperback copy. I gave it to the library years ago, so I couldn't compare to confirm, but I was pretty sure I would've remembered exchanges like this one, where Anne is describing the time she tried to dye her hair black as a child:

"I bought a bottle of dye from a German Jew peddler. I fondly expected it would turn my hair black--and it turned it green. So it had to be cut off." 
"You had a narrow escape, Mrs. Dr. dear," exclaimed Susan. "Of course you were too young then to know what a German was. It was a special mercy of Providence that it was only green dye and not poison."

That's not the kind of thing you'd read and forget, to put it mildly, and one can easily see why it would've been cut from post-WWII editions! But there were other sections I couldn't quite remember, either--some of them additional expressions of anti-German bigotry, but others that were just LM Montgomery's typical lush descriptions. So I did some googling and discovered the versions most Gen X and Gen Y girls grew up reading were indeed abridged, but the original full text is now available in both the bargain Kindle version I have and in a new print edition released in 2010.

I've had friends tell me they dislike this book because of its false portrayal of WWI--the characters swallow whole every bit of anti-German propaganda their government dishes out, both author and characters are brutal to the village's one outspoken pacifist, and the soldiers and their families somehow fondly believe despite everything that their sacrifice is worthwhile and will lead to the building of a new and better world. But to me that's why this is an important book beyond its place as part of a classic childhood series. Of course you wouldn't want to get your entire history of WWI from it, but when you remember that it was published in 1921, you see it as almost as much a primary source document as a story. It becomes poignant and heartbreaking how very wrong these brave, well-intentioned people are about the war and its aftermath.

But for all that, I still read Rilla of Ingleside as a story, too. And I'm almost embarrassed to admit it, but anything to do with Dog Monday (Rilla's brother's dog who decides to wait for him at the train station after he goes off with the very first batch of Canadian recruits) makes me get all misty-eyed.

12) Rita Book #3: Again, not a book I would've picked up on my own, but I wish all my Rita books were this strongly written.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

2014 Reading, Books 7-9

I'm judging Romance Writers of America's Rita awards again this year, which means I have a whole box full of books I'm counting toward my tally, but that I can't say much about without violating the contest's confidentiality rules. So...

7) Rita Book #1. In a subset of a subgenre I've never read before and wouldn't have picked up on my own, but a sweet, thoroughly enjoyable story. If all my books turn out this well, it'll be my best judging year ever.

8) Thief of Shadows, by Elizabeth Hoyt.

I was home sick the day I read this book--and frankly, procrastinating, when I wasn't so sick I couldn't have been writing or doing any number of other practical things--so I read yet another book. I've heard nothing but good things about Elizabeth Hoyt's writing, but somehow hadn't gotten around to reading any of her books. I had this one on hand from what I'm pretty sure was a goodie bag giveaway at the 2012 RWA conference, and I thought I'd give it a try.

I'm glad I did. This is a fun, romantic, and sexy historical romance with a somewhat unusual setting (1730's London, and at least as concerned with the rookeries of St. Giles as high society ballrooms), a hero who's a masked avenger fighting crime by night, and a heroine with subtle masks of her own. It was a good romance to read soon after The Three Musketeers. The style and tone are obviously very different, but they're alike in not being afraid to swing for the fences in historical swashbuckling. Since if anything I think I err on the side of being too subtle as a writer, big stories are an inspiration and a challenge.

9) Rick Steves' Spain 2014, by Rick Steves.

I'm preparing for a big, month-long European trip in the summer of 2015. We're going to fly into London (or possibly Paris or Amsterdam--have to research fares and such, but those are the three best options for our itinerary where you can get direct flights from Seattle), be in Belgium in time for the June 18 bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo, then make our way through France (Paris, then several days in the Dordogne region to unwind, eat VERY well, and see prehistoric sites) before crossing into Spain and Portugal. So I'll be reading lots of guidebooks this year, for values of "read" that equal "read the information for the places on our tentative itinerary in great detail, while skimming the rest of the country to determine what to try to fit in if we have a little more time."

For Spain, we expect to start out in Basque Country, based in either San Sebastian or Bilbao, then Madrid and Salamanca before crossing into Portugal--unless we decide to stay strictly in northern Spain and more or less follow the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela and then go down the coast into Portugal. I wish we had world enough and time for Granada, and my husband feels the same about Barcelona, but I know we won't want to cut the French portion of the trip short, and here's hoping there will be other chances in the future.

As always, Rick Steves writes a friendly guide for the traveler who's maybe aged out of the starving student backpacker at youth hostels stage, but who wants to avoid tourist traps and thereby save some cash while having a more authentic and intimate travel experience.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

LitJuice Interview

Last week I was interviewed at LitJuice. I truly enjoyed the interview as a chance to talk a bit about my process and what makes me tick as a writer, so do check it out!

Monday, January 20, 2014

2014 Reading, Books 4-6

4) Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization, by Richard A. Billows.

It's no longer the fashion in history to talk about one person or event changing the fate of the world--most of the time that's determined by larger, less personal forces. But Billows makes a good case that the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE is an exception. If Athens is defeated at Marathon, most likely the Persians sack the city and carry away its leadership into anonymous exile--and ultimately conquer all of Greece, because the victories of 480 BCE required the Spartan army and the Athenian navy. Break Athens, and its democracy becomes a short-lived failure, and any number of the great accomplishments in architecture, philosophy, theater, etc. that took place there over the next century or so may never have a chance to happen.

Billows doesn't idealize Athens--it was a terrible place to be a woman, much of its wealth was based on slave labor in its silver mines, and in its heyday it was as ruthless a colonial power as any. He also doesn't demonize Persia. As conquering empires go, it was one of the better ones to live under, since it allowed its subject peoples considerable local autonomy in governance, religious observance, etc. But he portrays Athens as innovative and important (correctly, in my view), and I'm always happy to see Athens get its due relative to Sparta.

5) Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes on Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, by Knute Berger.

This is a collection of Seattle journalist Knute Berger's columns about various local topics. The earliest was from 1992, I think, and the most recent from 2007 and '08, when the book was published. I moved here in 1999 and took awhile to get oriented and feel at home, so only the most recent ones recalled personal experience for me. And while some parts of the book made me laugh with rueful recognition at the foibles of my adopted city, others caused me to realize that I'm STILL a newcomer even though I'll have been here 15 years as of next month.

6) The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas.

One of my favorite reads in 2013 was The Black Count, Tom Reiss's biography of Alexandre Dumas's father. It left me curious enough to seek out Dumas's work, and I started with the most famous one. I didn't come into the book with strong expectations or anything beyond the vaguest notion of what the story was about, and I found it fun, readable, and full of sly wit.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Random Cookbook of the Week - Old-Fashioned Desserts

OK, so it took me a week to get over my mourning for the BCS results and come back to the blog. At least the Seahawks are still in the hunt for a championship!

This was my second encounter with Betty Crocker's Old-Fashioned Desserts. You can read my first post about Peanut Butter Cake here. This time around, I tried another cake:

Lazy Daisy Cake

1 1/2 c. cake flour or 1 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1 c. sugar
3/4 c. milk
1/3 c. butter, softened
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp salt
1 egg
Broiled Coconut Frosting (below)

Broiled Coconut Frosting
1 c. flaked coconut
1/3 c. packed brown sugar
1/4 c. butter, softened
2 T. half-and-half

Heat oven to 350 F. Grease and flour square pan, 8x8x2 or 9x9x2 inches. Beat all ingredients except frosting on low speed 30 seconds, scraping the bowl constantly. Beat on high speed 3 minutes, scraping bowl occasionally. Pour into pan. Bake 35-40 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.

Set oven to broil. Prepare frosting, spread over hot cake. Broil with top of cake about 4 inches from heat about 2 minutes or until frosting is light brown. Serve warm.

Like my last recipe from this cookbook, this was a nice, quick cake, not too sweet. Very buttery and vanilla-y, and my coworkers mowed through it, even ones who usually dislike coconut. Definite win.

Monday, January 6, 2014

At the intersection of luck and skill

As those of you who follow me on Twitter are no doubt aware, I am an Auburn football fan--I'm originally from Alabama, and my brother is an Auburn alum. Since my own alma mater (the University of Pennsylvania) isn't what you'd call an athletic powerhouse, my football loyalties remain with that family tie.

Last year Auburn was painful to watch. They went 3-9, 0-8 in conference. As almost always happens in such cases with a major program, that meant head coach Gene Chizik was fired. His replacement was Gus Malzahn, who had been Auburn's offensive coordinator under Chizik until that very year. As a fan watching the team from the opposite corner of the country, I was happy with the choice and figured we'd see a marked improvement right away, since it wasn't like the team lacked talent. Along with Alabama and LSU, they're one of the traditional powerhouses of the SEC West, the stronger division of the mightiest conference in football, and they were just three years out from their last national championship. I figured they'd go 7-5, maybe 8-4 with a little luck. They'd go to one of those random bowl games between Christmas and New Year's, thump their opponent, and be in a position to contend for a championship in 2014 or 2015.

And that would've been a fine turnaround indeed. But instead they finished 12-1. They're SEC champions, and tonight they're playing Florida State for the national championship. FSU is the heavy favorite, since they've dominated opponents all season while Auburn has tended to win nailbiters. Auburn, naysayers say, is just lucky. They then point to these two plays as evidence of that luck.

Here's the winning touchdown from the second to last game of the regular season vs. Georgia. Hail Mary tipped by two defenders with 25 seconds left on the clock:

And here, two weeks later, is the winning touchdown from the last game of the regular season, vs. cross-state rival Alabama. Until this moment, the last second of the game, this was undefeated Alabama, unstoppable machine Alabama, New York Yankees of college football going for a threepeat as national champions Alabama. The score was tied thanks to an amazing last-minute touchdown by Auburn, and Alabama coach Nick Saban decided to try to avoid overtime by attempting a 57-yard field goal despite his team having struggled with the kicking game all day. He put in a freshman kicker instead of the regular who'd been doing the struggling, and, really, what did he have to lose? If he makes the kick, game over, we all go home, and the Tide keeps rolling. If the kick falls short or is blocked, they're just going to overtime, same as they would if they'd just let the clock run out. That's the worst that can happen, right? There's no POSSIBLE way it could backfire, right?

Let's watch what happened:

I've been watching football all my life, and I didn't even know you could run a missed field goal back like that. For the first fifty yards of that run, I was muttering, "He can do that? That's allowed?" After that I was screaming, screaming so loud and long Miss Fraser came racing downstairs to make sure I was OK.

So...were those two plays nothing but luck? For the first one, luck certainly played a big role. That wasn't a great pass. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred it either falls incomplete or is intercepted or batted down by one of the Georgia players. But this time it was batted up, and Ricardo Louis was alert enough in the moment to get his hands on it, pull it in, and run it into the end zone. When luck gave him an improbable opportunity, he had the skill to make the most of it.

As for the second play...I'm calling that one almost all skill. It feels like luck because it's so rare--I believe it's the only time in collegiate football history a game has ever been won on a field goal return. But the odds of that kick falling short were very high, when you think about it. A 57-yarder? That's rare even in the NFL. And the Auburn coaching staff, unlike a mere fan like me, knew very well that you can run back a missed field goal, so they sent their best return man, Chris Davis, to wait in the end zone. And the Bama staff, despite also knowing the rule book backwards and forwards, only had big, lumbering linemen out there to guard against a blocked kick as opposed to the kind of speedsters who might've had a chance of running Davis down. Improbable as it was, beautiful and thrilling as it was for anyone but a Bama fan, that last play was skill, skill, skill.

After the game a reporter interviewed Davis and asked him what he was thinking when he saw that the kick was going to fall short. He grinned, shook his head, and said (paraphrased), "Just catch the ball and run. Catch it, and run." Because, really, what else could you think in that moment?

Tonight Auburn plays FSU, and we'll see whose luck and skill dominates. But win or lose, this Auburn season is going to inspire me for a long time to come. (OK, I'm human. It'll inspire me a lot more if they win.) Because improbable is not the same thing as impossible. Because failure isn't the final answer unless you let it be. Because sometimes turnarounds after disappointment happen quicker than you would've imagined possible. Because if you practice and work your ass off to be the best you can be, you'll be good enough to be lucky. And if opportunity falls into your hands, you just need to be ready to catch it and run.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

2014 Reading, Books 1-3

Time to start a brand new year's reading log! My goal this year is to read 120 books, so I'm shooting for 10/month. And since I had Thursday and Friday off as well as New Year's Day, I'm off to a good start for January. 

My only other goal is to have as much fun with reading as possible this year. Unless it's part of my judging assignment for the Ritas or something I need to research for one of my manuscripts, everything I read will be chosen because it's entertaining and/or fascinating.

This is a reading log rather than my book reviews. I personally don't feel comfortable wearing a reviewer's hat as well as an author's--if you give a scathing review to a best-seller, you come across as jealous, while if you're hard on a newbie, it feels like punching down. So on this blog I'm just listing what I finish, with a few short notes on what I got out of the reading experience. Since I don't finish books unless I enjoy them, you can assume that if I was reviewing, any book listed would at least get a 3.5 stars/B- grade.

1) The Sharing Spoon, by Kathleen Eagle.

I'm not a big fan of small town/rural or Western romance, but Kathleen Eagle is one of my exceptions. Her husband is Lakota, she lives in Minnesota, and for the most part she writes the world she lives in--which means her Native American characters feel like real human beings from a real culture rather than Mystical Fonts of New Age Wisdom. This book is a collection of three holiday novellas (one Thanksgiving and two Christmas), and all of them worked well for me, though the historical "The Wolf and the Lamb" was my favorite. All in all, a good read to say farewell to the holiday season and usher in the new year.

2) Rosemary and Rue, by Seanan McGuire.

Since my introduction to McGuire was the far lighter-toned Discount Armageddon, I was surprised and initially taken aback by how much darker and grimmer this urban fantasy world is. Rosemary and Rue introduces half-human, half-fae San Francisco detective Toby Daye, who lost fourteen years of her life by being transformed into a fish while investigating a case for her faerie liege lord. Back in her own form, she doesn't want anything more to do with her old career or her fae connections. But of course she's not really going to be able to escape...

I don't think I'll ever love urban fantasy as much as I do epic and historical fantasy, but this was an intriguing page-turner, and I expect I'll keep reading the series from here.

3) Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh.

I've been a fan of Allie Brosh ever since my first encounter with Clean All the Things! So naturally her book was at the top of my Christmas wish list. It's a series of illustrated essays, a mix of blog posts and new material that's both laugh-out-loud funny and thoughtfully self-aware. The essays on depression are especially illuminating. I'm not very prone to depression myself--my personal demons tend to take the form of anxiety and panic instead--so her description helps me see and connect to what my friends and relatives who do live with depression are going through.

Saturday, January 4, 2014


My birthday is New Year's Day, which means I get a double whammy of the impulse to change my life for the better that comes with turning over the calendar and having to write a new, bigger number on forms that ask for my age. So I have a habit of setting really ambitious resolutions for myself. Every year I declare that this year will be different! I will be so organized. I will waste no time. My house will be so neat. I will eat at least five servings of fresh fruits and vegetables every single day. My bills and paperwork will be filed, not just shoved into boxes, and each month I will clear out everything that's past its retention period.

Yeah, right. This year I'm at least attempting to be more realistic. But because it is a new year and I am a year older, I couldn't resist setting a few goals.

  1. I've been on Weight Watchers for a little over a year. At the start, I was 70 lbs over the top of the healthy range for my height. I've lost 40 of those pounds and by BMI am now considered overweight rather than obese. This year I want to lose the remaining 30 lbs and maintain the loss. (I'm not trying to lose any more than that because I really am big-boned. I have broad shoulders. My feet and even my head are big. As for my chest, let's just say I laughed uproariously at a book where a hero reflected on the heroine's "generous figure" by thinking she had to wear "C cups, at least." When I'm feeling poetic, I think of myself as the shield maiden type, though "sturdy peasant" is probably more accurate.)
  2. I will finish the manuscript I'm under contract for on time.
  3. I will submit proposals for two additional manuscripts--one sequel to the contracted book, and one completely unrelated work, possibly even in a whole new genre for me.
  4. I will read at least 120 books. (For 2013 I read 115, so this should be doable.)
  5. I will have a rough budget and itinerary mapped out for the European "trip of a lifetime" I'm planning for Summer 2015 to coincide with the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo. 
  6. I will work with my doctor, my physical therapist, and any other specialists needed to get my bad shoulder and bad foot healthy enough to not spend the Summer 2015 trip limping and whimpering my way across Belgium, France, and Spain. (Currently I have good days and bad days with both problem areas.)
  7. I will work on improving my social life. I'm still figuring out what that means, but so far I think I'll invite friends to dinner more than once or twice per year, and I'll do some of the classes and activities at my new church instead of just slipping into a pew two minutes before the 10:00 AM service starts and ducking out as soon as it's over.
That's a lot, and if I pull it off I think I can legitimately feel accomplished. But it's not so far beyond what I'm already doing that I feel like I'm asking the impossible of myself.