Thursday, October 24, 2013

Random Cookbook of the Week - the Minimalist Cooks at Home

This week I drew one of Mark Bittman's earlier cookbooks, published in 1999, The Minimalist Cooks at Home. It's simple, quick cooking without relying on a lot of shortcuts or prepared ingredients, and for the most part I've had good luck with the recipes, though to my taste Bittman underseasons things a bit. I have to use a LOT of salt and pepper, and often increase other spices and herbs, to get the flavor I want.

Prosciutto Soup

- 3 T extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 lb prosciutto, in 1 chunk or slice
- 4 garlic cloves
- 1 medium onion
- 1/2 lb greens, such as spinach or kale
- 3/4 c small pasta, such as orzo or small shells
- salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Set 6 cups water to boil. Put 2 T of the olive oil in the bottom of a medium saucepan and turn the heat to medium. Chop the prosciutto into 1/4-inch or smaller cubes and add to the oil. Brown, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, while you prepare the garlic, onion, and greens.

2. Peel the garlic and chop it roughly or leave it whole. Peel and chop the onion. Wash and chop the greens into bite-sized pieces.

3. When the prosciutto has browned, add the garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until it begins to color, about 2 minutes. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it becomes translucent, 2 or 3 minutes. Add the greens and stir, then add the 6 cups boiling water. Stir in the pasta and a good sprinkling of salt and pepper; adjust the heat so the mixture simmers.

4. When the pasta is done, taste and add more salt and pepper if necessary. Drizzle with the remaining olive oil and serve.

This is pretty tasty. Not the best soup I've ever had, but a good quick recipe, and the thick chunks of prosciutto and garlic give it a nice, robust flavor.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

2013 Reading, Books 94-96

94) Discount Armageddon, by Seanan McGuire.

Wow, that was fun. Not to mention smart, sexy, hilarious, and adventurous, and generally everything you'd look for in the best kind of escapist read. If you like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, read this book. Though McGuire has her own strong voice, there's a similar sensibility at work.

For the rest of my reading in the past ten days or so, I went with nonfiction of the "We're doomed! DOOMED, I say!" variety:

95) The Attacking Ocean: The Past, Present, and Future of Rising Sea Levels, by Brian Fagan.

This book started out fascinating, with an account of how various ancient civilizations interacted with their shifting rivers and coastlines, and then turned depressing as it reached the modern era, where population growth crowds more and more people against coasts where rising sea levels lead to increased floods and deadly storm surges. I happened to read this during the waning days of the government shutdown, when it honestly looked my country was going to default on its debts and drag the world economy down with it for no good reason, which made it extra depressing. I try to feel optimistic about the world I'm bequeathing to my daughter, but sometimes it's hard.

96) Full Rip 9.0: The Next Big Earthquake in the Pacific Northwest, by Sandi Doughton.

I meant to go with something nice and light for my next book, but somehow ended up with "Oh God, Oh God, we're all gonna die," Local Edition. (It's due back at the library in a few days, so I needed to get to it.)

I moved to Seattle from the all but seismically dormant eastern half of the country in 1999 (grew up in Alabama, spent a good chunk of my 20's in Philadelphia), and experienced my first earthquake, the 6.8 Nisqually quake, in early 2001. It was scary, for sure, but did relatively light damage for its magnitude because its epicenter was so deep. We get that type of high-6/low-7 magnitude quake every few decades here, and up until very recently scientists thought that was the worst the Northwest had to worry about.

But then scientists started noticing signs of violent coastal upheaval (sand layers carried far inland by a tsunami, "ghost forests" of trees that had clearly been killed together when the ground beneath them heaved) and paying attention to Native American oral histories that hinted at a massive quake and flooding less than ten generations back. Eventually they used tree-ring analysis of the ghost forests to show that the trees had died between the 1699 and 1700 growing seasons, and found a record of an "orphan tsunami" that struck Japan on January 26, 1700. Between the local evidence in the landscape and the size of the tsunami that made it all the way across the Pacific, the 1700 quake is estimated as between 8.7 and 9.2. Very comparable to the 2011 Tohoku quake, in other words. Evidence suggests major subduction zone quakes of this type every 200-500 years.

To add to the fun, scientists also observed evidence of shallow faults all around the region, including the Seattle Fault, which cuts right through the south end of the city. These faults slip very rarely--the last Seattle Fault quake was over 1000 years ago--but are capable of producing a 7.0 or so that would do far more damage than our "usual" sort-of-big ones because it's a shallow fault. Think something similar to the 1995 Kobe quake.

So, the Northwest's worst-case scenarios are pretty damn bad. A repeat of the 1700 quake and tsunami would probably have a lower death toll than Tohoku because our coastal population density is lower, but it could easily rival the 1900 Galveston Hurricane for the deadliest natural disaster to strike the US--and it's by no means certain Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver wouldn't sustain severe damage of their own from the distant, sustained shake of a 9.0 off the coast. When our cities were built, no one even knew such disasters were a possibility, and as a region we're less prepared than Japan, either in terms of building codes or public awareness and education. But living in Seattle as I do, the Seattle Fault is my true doomsday scenario. We are SO not ready for a Kobe-equivalent quake here.

Still, this book didn't depress me as much as my last read, I think because it's such a local disaster. Even living here, I'm less spooked by "The Northwest could be DOOMED!" than "Mankind could be DOOMED, and it's our own short-sighted, over-populating, carbon-emitting fault!" After all, we're at least trying to understand the seismic hazards and mitigate them. I hope I never live to see either of our Really Truly Big Ones--not least because of the non-zero chance I wouldn't live to see anything AFTER that!--but if I do, I'll get through and rebuild. Like people do.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

2013 TBR Challenge - Scoundrel

I read Warrior, the first book in this series, ages and ages ago, and bought the whole series as a "boxed" set when it was on sale for Kindle, again quite awhile back. And I've been hoarding it ever since, as I often do with books I know I'll enjoy, but where the author didn't leave me with a strong enough cliffhanger that I have to read the newest book the nanosecond it comes out. (I'm looking at you, Diana Gabaldon, for leaving poor Jem Mackenzie literally in the dark! And you too, George RR Martin, not to name any names lest I spoil TV viewers, but that last major character maybe-death!) Having a few hoarded books gives me a sense of security that I'll never be trapped on a long flight or, worse, holed up in an airport under a weather delay and lack for something entertaining to read.

Anyway, Archer's Blades of the Rose series is fantasy romance with steampunk elements, set in an alternate late 19th century where magic exists and the Blades of the Rose fight to ensure that each nation gets to keep their own magical legacy against the Heirs of Albion, who want to control all the world's magic so the sun will really REALLY never set on the British Empire. They're sort of Indiana Jones with lots of sexytimes--rollicking swashbucklers where good is good, evil is evil, and the characters hurtle from one death-defying adventure to the next.

I picked up Scoundrel now because the October theme for the 2013 Romance TBR Challenge is Paranormal Romance. I didn't like it quite so much as Warrior because of the different hero archetypes involved--Warrior's hero is a rough-around-the-edges soldier who falls for a highborn woman, which I love. (Mmm, Sharpe!) Bennett Day in Scoundrel is more your typical romance novel womanizing rogue, which is much less a fantasy of mine. That said, I loved the heroine, and the swashbuckling was dandy. And speaking of dandies, I'm looking forward to Catullus Graves' story in Stranger. He's the inventor of all the handy gadgets the Blades team uses, and he's a black Briton, which draws my interest since two of my own most recent manuscripts have featured black British characters.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Random Cookbook of the Week - 1951 Joy of Cooking

My mom married my dad in 1952. (I was their late-edition surprise oopsie Gen-X child born in 1971--I have three Baby Boomer brothers.) She received a 1951 Joy of Cooking for a wedding present, one that six decades on bears the stains of long use, especially in the pie and candy sections. It's one of several "family" books she gave me during her last illness, along with a few other cookbooks, my father's and grandfather's Bibles, and a 100-year-old speller with my great-uncle's name penciled on the inside cover.

The 1951 Joy is an intriguing mix of the timeless and the very much of its era. My chosen recipe fell into the latter category, but made for a good dinner for a fall evening nonetheless:

Pork Chops Baked in Sour Cream
4 servings

Prepare for cooking:
- 4 loin pork chops 1/2 inch thick

Dredge them with:
- Seasoned flour

Insert in each chop:
- 1 clove

Brown them lightly in a little hot pork fat or lard. (I used a tablespoon of butter, because, this being 2013, I don't have a canister of lard by the stove like my mom used to before she and Dad got put on low cholesterol diets.) Place them in a baking dish. Combine, heat, and pour over them:

- 1/2 c. water
- 1/2 bay leaf
- 2 T vinegar (I used white wine vinegar)
- 1 T sugar
- 1/2 c. sour cream

Cover the dish. Bake the chops in a moderate oven (350 F) for about 1 hour.

The pork chops came out tasty enough, and the sour cream sauce made a nice gravy, but it was a little sweet for my taste. I'll probably make it again, since it was so simple and such a nice cool-weather dish, only I'll omit the sugar and brown some mushrooms, capers, and garlic or shallot along with the pork chops.

Monday, October 14, 2013

2013 Reading, Books 91-93

91) Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America, by Jo B. Paoletti

My daughter, age 9, is a tomboy, as I myself was at her age. Given the enormous strides women have made toward fuller equality and success in traditionally male professions, it's startling how much more gendered clothes and toys are now than during my 1970's and 80's childhood. Photos of me show a kid in the same reds, oranges, greens, and yellows boys were wearing, and while boys played with GI Joe toys and girls played with dolls (I didn't--I preferred toy horses), things like blocks, Lincoln Logs, and Legos weren't gendered. Now girl clothes run heavily to pink and ruffled, and toys are gendered as can be. I'm proud to say Miss Fraser scorns these trends, and will proclaim that everyone should play with, wear, and watch whatever they like. But it's still tough to shop for her.

So this book caught my attention. It's a history of children's clothing from the late 19th century to the present--from the days when babies of both sexes wore the same white dresses and boys kept wearing skirts, albeit usually with masculine detailing, through their preschool years, to the unisex trends of the 60's and 70's, all the way up to how today's trends look to be a backlash against the unisex clothing today's generation of parents wore as children. Fascinating stuff--e.g. did you know in the early 20th century there was debate over which color belonged to each sex? Many were of the opinion blue was better for girls, being a delicate color associated with the Virgin Mary, while pink as a shade of red was the more manly color.

92) Winter Woman, by Jenna Kernan.

I've had this book on my TBR shelf for ages--it's part of my library's collection of donated paperbacks with a "please return when finished" sticker slapped on the cover...and I, um, kinda hoard them. (I also regularly donate boxes of books to be either sold at the Friends of the Library Book Sale or added to the return-when-finished collection, so hopefully it balances out.)

Anyway, I decided it was high time I started weeding through my borrowed collection and returning them to the wild, so I grabbed this one, read the first few pages to see if it was any good, and was promptly hooked. It's a Western romance, but one set in the 1830's, before the heyday of the cowboy. The heroine is a widow who survived a winter alone in the Rockies (she and her husband were left behind by their missionary wagon train who promised to return for them, only everyone but her ultimately died), and the hero is a trapper. The book is an all-around good read--fast-paced, adventurous, and romantic.

I'd never heard of Kernan before, and since the romance writer community is a smallish world, I feared that meant she was no longer active. (This book is copyright 2003.) But when I googled her I discovered she's an active and prolific writer with a good-sized backlist for me to explore. Which is why libraries are good things for authors. I tried her because I'll grab pretty much anything that halfway appeals to me of the "please return when finished" rack, but I'll be buying her works in the future.

93) Scoundrel, by Zoe Archer.

For the 2013 TBR Challenge. Detailed post to follow.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Random Cookbook of the Week - A Feast of Ice and Fire

A Feast of Ice and Fire has its roots in the Inn at the Crossroads blog, and both are devoted to bringing the food from George R.R. Martin's books to life. The recipes are a mix of accessible and challenging, and of modern and historical--often the cookbook will offer two recipes for a dish mentioned in the books, one modern and one medieval (or sometimes Roman or Elizabethan). It has a handful of recipes I know I'm not brave enough to try--e.g. Honey-Spiced Locusts--and several I'd love to tackle but haven't yet had the time to attempt--Roman Honeyfingers, Quails Drowned in Butter, Medieval Pork Pie, etc.

But it's also packed with a surprising number of good everyday recipes. Modern Bean and Bacon Soup has become one of my go-to dinner recipes, for example, and I plan on making this week's choice again, too.

Almond Crusted Trout
Serves 2

1/2 c. fresh parsley, chopped
1/4 c. fresh dill, chopped
2 shallots, chopped
1/2 c. chopped or ground almonds
1 tsp salt
1/4 c. bread crumbs (I used panko)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 c. lemon juice
1 egg
1/2 c. flour
2 small cleaned and gutted trout, or 4 trout fillets (I used fillets)

Heat a grill to low or preheat the oven to 275F. (I used the oven, because it's the rainy season now.)

Mix the herbs, shallots, almonds, salt, and bread crumbs together by hand or in a food processor. (food processor here) Add the garlic, lemon juice, and egg and mix until uniform in texture. Put the flour into a shallow bowl and dredge the fish in the flour. Gently pack the almond mixture inside and around the fish. Grill or bake for about 1 hour, or until the crust is just crispy and the fish is cooked through. Plate and serve.

Since I was using fillets instead of a whole fish, it only took about 20 minutes for the fish to cook through, by which point the crust wasn't anywhere close to crispy, so I turned the broiler on and stuck the fish under it for 5 minutes to give it some crunch.

The crust mixture is a perfect balance of flavors, IMHO. It doesn't have a strong almond flavor, but the fat and richness of the nuts seems to mellow and bind the bright flavors of the lemon and herbs, and they marry beautifully with the fish.

Incidentally, I'm still trying to acquire a taste for fish, and I was advised by other fish-averse folk to avoid trout. But I tried it one night when it was the special at Maple Leaf Grill, and it's my favorite fish. Turns out my problem with fish has at least as much to do with texture as flavor, and trout and salmon, though fishy-tasting, have a nice meaty texture. So give them a tasty sauce or crust so they don't scream FISH! and I'm a happy diner.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A plea for fashion advice

I've been on Weight Watchers for almost a year now, and I've lost over 40 lbs, with another 20-25 to go. If and when I get to my goal weight, I mean to splurge on a top-quality tartan skirt, something that will last me years and years, thereby motivating me to STAY at goal weight so it will fit me for book signings and whenever else I want to rock the Scottish part of my heritage.

What I'd really like is something like this:

Or possibly something in a more kiltish cut, like this:

But even being at goal weight is not going to make me look like the bonnie lassie modeling those skirts, and I want to make sure whatever I choose works for me. And I tend to look best in pencil or otherwise straight skirts. So maybe what I really need is this:

So, me out. My heart is with the first two choices, because they're more evocative of a kilt. And I'm hoping the flat front of the second option would give enough of a straight skirt look to be flattering for me. But would I be better off playing it safe with a straight skirt?

And, while I'm at it...

Fraser Modern?

or Fraser Ancient Hunting?

(Assume I'd being wearing this with a black, dark brown, or dark green sweater and some silver Celtic jewelry.)

Thursday, October 3, 2013

2013 Reading, Books 88-90

Still busy busy busy, but hopefully almost to the point where I can actually announce Good Writing News. Watch this space...

88. Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores, by Jen Campbell.

Exactly what the title says it is, and hilarious, too.

89. A manuscript by my critique partner, Rose Lerner. Assuming her publisher accepts it, y'all may be able to read it in, oh, November 2014 or so. So for now I won't say anything other than that it's beautifully written and different. However, she does have a new release scheduled for March that I can highly recommend, too.

90. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark.

This isn't my usual type of book--I'm more about the smart genre fiction than Noted Works of Literature. But I heard an interesting discussion of the book on NPR, and I'm glad I gave it a try. I wouldn't say I enjoyed it, exactly, but it made me think. I'm not sure what to think of the book, or of Jean Brodie, but I expect I'll be turning it over in my mind for some time to come.