31 January 2014

The She-Hulk Diaries


Acosta's She-Hulk is a bit different from the She-Hulk of my comic book memories and took a little getting used to. For example, I wasn't expecting a clear Jennifer Walters/She-Hulk divide as if She-Hulk were a completely different person from Jennifer. It makes sense in Acosta's novel, but that didn't mean I still didn't spend quite a lot of the beginning grimacing as Jennifer complained to herself about Shulky's shenanigans (while also using Shulky as an escape from her own mixed-up life).

That aside, I quite enjoyed The She-Hulk Diaries. Acosta's Jennifer Walters comes across as a very real person trying to successfully balance career and personal life while dealing with repercussions from some pretty poor choices (mostly She-Hulk's). She's made a checklist of goals to get her where she wants to be in life and she's confident and smart enough to make it all happen. While, I think, the look of the book and its dairy style are supposed to make you think of Bridget Jones's Diary, Jennifer is no bumbling-but-well-intentioned Bridget. Jennifer doesn't make blue soup. Jennifer tries to save dying children.

(Yeah. So, I might have a little crush).

And all that in a world filled with nefarious supervillians, a "dangerous" outbreak of niceness, and LARPing. LARPing, people. I'd love this book just for that. And the fluffy rats! And the tedious Avengers reports. Someone knows how to write superhero window dressing with style.

She-Hulk Diaries by Marta Acosta (Hyperion, 2013)

29 January 2014

Slow Cooker Beef Shanks, Yum

It's been miserable cold here and I've had a terrible craving for rich, meaty dishes like beef bourguignon. Alas, the only beef in my freezer were two beef shank cross cuts picked up on a whim a few months ago. I couldn't turn them into beef bourguignon. But, surely, I could do something similar? I went to the internets, since the library was closed, and found many ways to braise beef shanks in red wine and stock. I cobbled the recipes together and came up with this:

Slow Cooked Beef Shanks

Rich, hearty, flavorful, succulent ... it was like the best pot roast ever. That sound's terrible, doesn't it? But a really good pot roast is not easily come by, in my humble opinion, and this was everything I want a pot roast to be.
Slow Cooker Beef Shanks

Ingredients
2 beef shank cross cuts weighing about 1.5 lbs each, well trimmed
olive oil, as needed
2 cups beef stock
1½ cups red wine [Newport Vineyards 2011 Merlot]
2 heads garlic, bashed and peeled
2 large carrots, peeled and cubed
2 celery ribs, sliced
1 bay leaf
1 tsp dried rosemary
1 tsp dried thyme
2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar [Bella Gusta Fig Balsamic]
sea salt and pepper, to taste

Directions
Generously season shanks with salt and pepper.

Heat oil in a large French/Dutch oven until the pot is quite hot. Add shanks and sear on each side until deep brown (I had to do this in batches). Add to slow cooker.


Beef Shanks Ready for the Slow Cooker

Reduce temperature to medium. Drain some of the fat from the pot so only a tablespoon remains. Add carrots, onions, garlic, and celery. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes or until the onion is translucent.

Add bay, thyme, rosemary, stock, and wine. Cook, uncovered, for about 20 minutes or until the mixture is reduced by half. Pour over shanks. Drizzle with balsamic. Cover and cook on Low for 10 hours.

Slow Cooked Beef Shanks
After cooking 10 hours
Remove beef and vegetables from slow cooker, shred beef, and cover to keep warm. Skim fat from juices, crank the slow cooker up to High, and thicken the juices with a cornstarch or arrowroot slurry. Season to taste. Serve over mashed potatoes (or polenta, if you're posh).

Beef Shank Bones
Look at those beautiful bare bones.

Wordless Wednesday: Sleepy Kitty

Sleepy Little Dude
Little loves snoozing on the new window seat cushions.

28 January 2014

Top 10 Tuesday: Terrible (Fictional) Places to Live


For this week's Top Ten Tuesday, we're talking about either the ten worst fictional worlds to live or the ten characters I'd never want to change places with. As I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, I decided to go with the worst worlds. (I'm hoping at some point we'll get to do a ten best list?)

Why are they the worst worlds? Either the worlds themselves are deadly or they are populated by deadly entities that like to go all stabby-stabby, etc.

Future Earths of:
  1. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
  2. The Oryx and Crake trilogy also by Margaret Atwood
  3. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
  4. The Children of Men by P.D. James
  5. 1984 by George Orwell

Other Worlds Entirely:
  1. Arrakis (or pretty much anywhere in the Dune 'verse)
  2. Westeros (George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series)
  3. Wonderland (Lewis Carroll)
  4. Bezer'ej (or any other planet colonized and thereby made overpopulated, polluted, and barren by the Isenj in Karen Traviss' Wess'har series)
  5. Grass (Sheri S. Tepper)


26 January 2014

Beet Salad, You Disappoint Me

I love beets and I'm always excited to find new ways to prepare them so, when I came across a recipe for "Kraut and Beet Slaw" in my Grandma G's 1956 edition of Cooking with Sour Cream and Buttermilk, I knew I had to give it a whirl.

I skewed the recipe toward beets rather than sauerkraut, making it much more a "chunky salad" than a "slaw." Because I am just too lazy to roast and peel beets, I used a mixture of 8 oz packages of Melissa's and Love Beets' vacuum-packed cooked beets. I wouldn't say there's a lot of difference between the two brands.

Prepared Packaged Beets

I also adjusted the seasonings, because more flavor is better.
Creamy Beets & Sauerkraut
Serves 4 generously as a side

Ingredients
2 8-oz packages vacuum-packed cooked beets
1 8-oz can sauerkraut
¼ cup finely chopped red onion
1 cup sour cream or plain Greek yoghurt
1-2 Tbsp prepared horseradish, depending on zippiness of brand [Gold's]
½-1 tsp sugar, depending on taste
1 tsp ground caraway
½ tsp salt
½ tsp white pepper
1 hard-cooked egg, chopped
Directions

Drain and rinse the sauerkraut. Wrap in a tea towel and squeeze until no more liquid comes out. Dump it in a mixing bowl.

Dice beets and add to sauerkraut with the red onion. Set aside.

Making Creamy Beets & Sauerkraut Salad

In a large mixing bowl, combine sour cream, horseradish, sugar, caraway, salt, and pepper. And beet mixture and stir until well combined.

Chill overnight to allow flavors to marry. Mix well and allow to come to room temp before bringing to table. If desired, garnish with chopped egg.

Creamy Beet & Sauerkraut Salad

I have found this dish is best if allowed to come to room temperature before serving as, when it's fresh from the fridge, the flavors are muted and it just tastes ... cold. But, on the other hand, you don't want to serve it immediately after making it, because it tastes like ... nothing much ... when it's new. Let it sit in the fridge for a day and it's markedly better -- slightly sour yet also sweet and earthy and deliciously creamy.

Indeed, this is not a bad retro recipe. But it's also not very good. Certainly, not as good as something made with two of my favorite ingredients should be. There's a lack of depth in flavor, which may have to do with using canned sauerkraut rather than fresh and so little caraway. If I were to make this again, I'd use fresh sauerkraut, rinsed and drained far less zealously, and more caraway. And more pepper. And salt. And celery seed, maybe?

25 January 2014

Around Connecticut: 457 Mason Jar

A local restaurant ran a Kickstarter campaign recently to raise money to do some minor renovations and rebrand itself as a Southern-style restaurant. As I want my local restaurant scene to thrive and I me some classic Southern food, I funded it to the best of my abilities. Happily, and unlike a bunch of things I've Kickstarted recently, the campaign was a success and 457 Mason Jar opened last week.

457 Mason Jar

The little restaurant was packed for the launch party and everyone seemed almost hellbent on having a good time. Very much a "THIS RESTAURANT WILL BE A SUCCESS AND OUR CITY IS BECOMING AWESOME" vibe ... and I hope that's all true, because I want my city to be a happening (and happy) place.

Anyway, the food at the launch was pretty fine. There hush puppies, fried okra, fried catfish, greens, pulled pork, ribs, mashed sweet potatoes, and barbecued chicken ... oh, my stomach was happy! Indeed, so happy that we returned over the weekend for breakfast! While I couldn't get the red-eye gravy and country ham as the ham had not come up from North Carolina (snow storms, blarg) the eggs and bacon (and bits of The Husband's pancake) I did eat were certainly worth leaving the house for.

23 January 2014

Italian Pasta Salad

I'm not really sure that mozzarella and salami necessarily an Italian salad make, but I didn't know what else to call this dish. Everything-That-Needed-Eating-Up Salad? That would certainly be true, but also very prosaic.

"Antipasto" salad

Italian Pasta Salad
Serves 3 as lunch with fruit

Ingredients
5 oz mini farfalle pasta
4 oz baby spinach
4 oz fresh mozzarella, cubed
1 small red onion, chopped small
5 sun-dried tomatoes, chopped small
6 Tbsp sun-dried tomato vinaigrette
[Organicville]
3 oz thin-sliced uncured salami, sliced into strips
5 leaves fresh basil, rolled and sliced thin
Fresh ground black pepper, as desired

Directions
Cook pasta as directed by package. Drain. Toss warm pasta with spinach so the leaves wilt a bit. Add in remaining ingredients and toss well. Serve while still warm.
Ingredients like chopped canned artichokes, chickpeas, and olives would make tasty additions to this salad.

"Antipasto" salad

22 January 2014

Wordless Wednesday: Sad Kitty

Hedwig
Look at those sad eyes. She does not understand why I could possibly want my chair back when she needs it so.

21 January 2014

Top 10 Tuesday: What I Wish Someone Would Write


For this week's Top Ten Tuesday, we're talking about our reading wish list -- anything from the things we wish authors would write more (or less) of or publishers would start (or stop) doing. My list is rather short with only three things, because I got a wee bit ranty and made myself stop. I kept trying to go back to the list and tack a different tack, but it was no go. The bee in my bonnet would not dislodge and I decided to leave the list as it is.

  1. I wish mainstream adult fiction would get on the LGBTQ train. There are some terrific YA novels out, but I don't see much for adults (outside of queer publishing, obviously) and I like reading YA, but I'd like to read mainstream(ed) fiction featuring queer women in their thirties (or older).
  2. I wish there were more novels in which the fat characters weren't always the stupid ones or the wicked ones or abruptly drop five dresses sizes and become the hot ones (because I’m fat and smart and (mostly) nice and hot and want to see myself in the fiction I read. I'm not the flippin' last unicorn).
  3. I wish mainstream comics publishers like DC and Marvel would start writing comics that didn't insist on pandering to some near-mythic white heterosexual male consumer. How about some good series comics in which women aren't drawn primarily as objects of pleasure for the male gaze even as they kick ass and take names? And godloveaduck, no more using female characters as plot devices (Disposable Woman, Lost Lenore, et al.).

And maybe the things I want are already out there in the world, but I don't know about them. Do you know books or authors that meet one or all of my wishes? Let me know.

20 January 2014

Lazy Sunday Sausage & Mushroom Soup

We couldn't be bothered leaving the house on Sunday for nonsense like food when there were chunky books like The Crow Trap to be read, but it's hard to concentrate on who might be a murderer when your insides are full of rumblings and grumblings.

So, I made soup. A warming, comforting soup that was sure to quiet any body's rumblings and grumblings. And, more importantly, a fast soup that didn't take me away from Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope for too long.

Lazy Sunday Sausage & Mushroom Soup @ Savory Tart

Lazy Sunday Sausage & Mushroom Soup
Serves 6

Ingredients
1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 lb loose-pack sweet Italian pork sausage meat
1 large carrot, quartered and sliced
2 large celery ribs, halved and sliced
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
1 bell pepper, roughly chopped
8 oz sliced mushrooms
5 oz small twist pasta
40 oz lower-sodium fat-free beef broth
8 oz chunky tomato sauce
1 Tbsp salt-free Italian seasoning blend
Salt and pepper, to taste

Directions
Heat the oil in the bottom of a large heavy pan like a Dutch or French oven. Add the sausage and cook, bashing about with a spoon to break up the sausage, until no pink remains.

Remove sausage to a paper towel-lined colander and let drain. If there's a lot of fat at the bottom of the pot, pour it off until only a tablespoon remains.

Add the carrot, celery, onion, peppers, and mushrooms to the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes or until softened.

Add in the broth, tomato sauce, and pasta. Give everything a good stir and simmer for about 15 minutes or until the pasta is tender.

Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Portion into bowls and sprinkle with grated Parmesan, if desired.
You could use a a can of diced tomatoes instead of the chunky tomato sauce. I just happened to have leftover tomato sauce that needed eating up. The variety I used, Simply Enjoy (Stop & Shop's house brand), was ridiculously chunky -- more like a big jar of diced tomatoes someone had added a little puree to. It worked fine in the soup, but was too chunky for the pasta dish I'd originally meant it for and I had to smooth it out a bit with my immersion blender. The flavor was good, though. A fresh, bright tomato flavor with lots of garlic bits.

The pasta will keep absorbing liquid so, when you take any leftovers out of the fridge, you may find your soup is now a stew. Just add a little broth to the pot when reheating or, if (like me) you enjoy stewy soups, leave it as it is.

19 January 2014

Baking for My Love: Orange Madeleines

I'm a bookish cook, so baking madeleines seems an obvious thing and yet I've spent years avoiding the things because they sounded tricksy and every resource seemed to have a different opinion about what they should be. Mostly, I think, because everyone wants to bake Proust's madeleines and no-one has that precise recipe?

As I don't want to bake Proust's madeleines any more than I want to read Proust, I was willing (purely out of love for The Husband) to attempt the two versions in William-Sonoma's Essentials of Baking (revised edition). The Husband seemed quite excited by the idea of madeleines -- they are very photogenic cookie-cakes (cake-cookies?), after all -- and they seemed high on his list of Things I Must Bake.

Since we had too many satsumas on hand, my first attempt was with the recipe for orange madeleines. A thorough read-through of the recipe actually left me feeling quite confident I could bake a decent madeleine -- they are surprisingly simple cookie-cakes -- and I was away.

Buttered, Floured Madeleine Pan

The recipe says to carefully and thoroughly butter and flour ever ridge of the madeleine pan, because the madeleines may stick otherwise, so I buttered and floured as if Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood were looking over my shoulder. And, you know, I think I might have gone a wee bit overboard, because when I went to flip and knock the pan against the cooling rack to release the cookies, they all fell out before I'd even completed the flip. I used a Chicago Metallic madeleine pan and it is, apparently, not joking around about being nonstick.

These madeleines came out looking and tasting just as Essentials of Baking said they should -- perfect little scallop shells of tender, spongy cake. I was so chuffed. We ate them warm, as recommended, with a dusting of confectionery sugar. The recipe makes twelve, which is perfect with tea for two as breakfast and elevenses.

Orange Madeleines

Really, I can't get over how well these madeleines came out and I look forward to baking the chocolate version. While I know a lot of my success has to do with improved baking skills due to time and practice, some has to do with the way Essentials of Baking's is written. It's as if the editors peeked into my brain and then wrote the book specifically for me. The recipes (at least the ones I've read through) all seem quite clear and straight forward and even go so far as to provide instructions for both hand and machine mixing. And amounts are giving in multiple forms of measurement! Honestly, I'm crushing pretty hard on Essentials of Baking.

Orange Madeleines

17 January 2014

A Change of Heart


Ah, sweet Mary, he thought as he looked down into her big hazel eyes. She was going to provide him the means to dig himself out of the quagmire of debts he had inherited. He was sincerely grateful to her and would attempt -- he really would attempt -- to be an accommodating husband. He was fond of her, after all, regardless of the fact that she in no way represented the sort of woman he preferred. At least, he thought as he pulled the diminutive bundle in his arms closer, she was not completely unattractive to him.

A charming but unattractive spinster befriends a naughty rake in search of a wife and offers to help him find the perfect bride. And she does bring him miss after miss, but none take as they all have one fatal flaw -- they're not rich. But it's not the spinster's fault as the rake never told her he must have a rich wife. And why hasn't he told he this? Because he doesn't want to be seen as a pitiful fortune hunter. (Perfectly fine to be a debauched rake, of course). Also, the rake finds himself growing increasingly fond of the spinster (and the spinster of the rake, conveniently). The spinster is the perfect friend and could be the perfect wife, if only she were rich ...

You see where this is going, right? She'll turn out of be quite rich. He'll marry her for the money. She'll think it's out of friendship and mutual understanding. She'll discover The Terrible Truth. There will be Suffering and Reconciliation and Love.

And the story does fall along those lines, but ... it's actually not bad. Predictable, but also kind-of cute and funny in places. I enjoyed the secondary romance that blossomed between Mrs. Bannister and Mr. Maitland and watching Spinster Mary interact with Jack's family as they were all quite interesting and rather lovely characters.

However, I did not really warm to Jack the Rake. He treated her quite shabbily as both a friend and a fiance and, one more than one occasion, he nearly ruined the novel for me. I guess he's so used to turning his charms on a woman and having her bend to his every whim that he thinks he can get away with being an ass? Because he is quite frequently an ass. Even visualizing him as Hugh Laurie (an actor that was born to play a Regency Rake if any man ever was) did not help and that's my surefire way to stop hatin' on a rakish lead.

I think I'm simply going to stop reading romances for a while. After all, there are many other genres to try. I've never read a Western ...

A Change of Heart by Candice Hern (Signet, 1995)

16 January 2014

Improv Challenge: Crackers & Cheese

It's a new year for the Improv Challenge and we're starting the year with crackers and cheese! At first, my brain was all canapécanapécanapé, but then I read an article about German cooking and fell in love with the idea of Käse Schnitzel, a schnitzel covered in melted cheese. Surely, I could use crushed crackers to crust the schnitzel and then drizzle it with drown it in cheese sauce.

Käse Schnitzel II


I used Club Minis -- a bite-size buttery cracker -- that I chucked in food storage bag and bashed with a meat tenderizer until they were acceptably crumby. Any buttery cracker would work, I'm sure, and you could even use cheesy ones and omit the cheese powder. I used Club Minis simply because they are my addiction and I welcome any excuse to bring more of them into my home.
Cheesy Fried Pork Cutlets
Serves 4

Ingredients
1 lb boneless pork cutlets
3 Tbsp flour [King Arthur Flour White Whole Wheat]
½ tsp teaspoon salt
½ tsp ground black pepper
½ tsp garlic powder
½ tsp paprika [Penzeys Hungary Sweet]
1 large egg [Farmers' Cow]
3 Tbsp milk
2 cups crushed buttery crackers [Keebler Club Minis]
2 Tbsp cheese powder [King Arthur Flour Vermont Cheese Powder]
2 Tbsp olive oil, plus more as needed


Directions
Set oven to warm or whatever is your oven's lowest temperature setting.

If your cutlets are not very thin, you will need to pound them until they are about ¼-inch thick.

Set out three pie plates. In one, combine the flour, salt, garlic powder, paprika, and pepper. In another, combine egg and milk. Mix crackers and cheese powder in the last pie plate.

Dredge meat with flour; dip in egg mixture, then dredge with cracker mixture. Arrange the pork cutlets on a baking sheet or platter and let stand for 5 minutes.


Heat oil in a large skillet. Cook cutlets in batches (I could fit 2 in my skillet at a time) for 3 minutes. Flip and cook for another 3. Remove to the warm oven and continue with remaining cutlets. You may need to add more oil between batches.

Frying Cracker-Coated Cutlets

Beery Cheese Sauce
Serves 4

Ingredients
1 10¾ oz can condensed cheddar cheese soup [Campbell's Healthy Request]
⅓ cup pale lager [Foster's]
2 oz cheddar cheese, shredded [Cabot Seriously Sharp]
¼ tsp dry mustard
¼ tsp paprika [Penzeys Hungary Sweet]
½ tsp Worcestershire sauce

Directions
In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine soup, beer, cheese, mustard, paprika, and worcestershire. Heat through, stirring frequently, until shredded cheese is completely incorporated.



I served the cutlets with broccoli and buttered parslied noodles (and cheese sauce over everything, of course). The cutlets were pretty fab -- crunchy and moderately cheesy even without the sauce -- and I cannot wait to make them again. I tried another version of this recipe with baked cracker-crusted turkey cutlets and, while it was pretty good, the cutlets weren't nearly as crunchy and the overall flavor was a bit bland. Healthier, no doubt, but simply not as tasty.

The cheese sauce was pretty fab, too. Creamy and sharp with just a touch of heat from the mustard and pepper ... I'll be making it again just to pour over broccoli or cauliflower! I used Foster's in the pork version and Heineken with the turkey with good results -- you want to taste the beer behind the cheese, but not go "hey! beer sauce!" (unless that's your taste preference, of course).

Käse Schnitzel II


15 January 2014

Wordless Wednesday: Tunnel of Light

Tunnel of lights
Set on the floor of the New Britain Museum of American Art. When you look down into it,
it seems to go on forever, but it's actually a handspan deep. Cute.

Eating the Alphabet: The End

Wrapping up the 2013 Eating the Alphabet Challenge! A little sad, because there's still so many things I want to try, but that's okay ... because we're doing it again! Although, I guess it's going to be a little different this year? More of a monthly link party? And the name's changing?

(A or B): Curried Acorn Squash Soup with Apples & Leeks

(C or D): Ensalada de Chayote, Elote, y Tomates (Chayote, Corn, & Tomato Salad with Red Wine Vinaigrette)

(E or F): Zesty Fig Spread (fave)

(G or H): The very belated Roasted Green Beans with Garlic & Thyme (fave)

(I or J): Jicama Fruit Salad

(K or L): Southwestern-Style Kale Salad

(M, N, or O): Mango & Mint Quinoa Salad

(P, Q, or R): Whipped Rutabaga & Carrots (fave)

(S or T): Sorrel Sauce & Sorrel-Smashed Potatoes (fave)

(U, V, or W): Vanilla-Scented Chicken Over Greens (meh)

(X, Y, or Z): Lemon-Cheesy Zucchini



14 January 2014

Top 10 Tuesday: Exciting 2014 Debuts


Oh, I had a terrible time with this week's Top Ten Tuesday! Every time I thought I'd found a fascinating debut novel, it turned out to be the author's second or third work. Still fascinating, and I have a nice little side list started, but not quite what I needed. I think I did pretty well in the end, with a list full of promising beginnings.

  1. Defy by Sara B. Larson
  2. Learning Not to Drown by Anna Shinoda
  3. A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain by Adrianne Harun
  4. The Mangle Street Murders by M.R.C. Kasasian
  5. No One Else Can Have You by Kathleen Hale
  6. Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile
  7. Salvage by Alexandra Duncan
  8. The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos
  9. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton
  10. The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol

13 January 2014

Hercule Poirot's Christmas: A Holiday Mystery


And families now, families who have been separated throughout the year assemble once more together. Now under those conditions, my friend, you must admit that there will occur a great amount of strain.

The result of pretending to be a more amiable, a more forgiving, a more high-minded person than one really is, has sooner or late the effect of causing one to behave as a more disagreeable, a more ruthless, and an altogether more unpleasant person that on actually that case. If you dam the stream of natural behavior, mon ami, sooner or later, the dam bursts and a cataclysm occurs!

Old Simeon Lee has gathered his far-flung family for Christmas. All his married sons and their wives, his long-lost granddaughter, and prodigal son will fill his house with laughter and love. Except that Simeon Lee is a horrible man who only gathered his relations 'round to psychologically torture them for his own wicked pleasure. And his blood relations are, by and large, no great shakes. As everyone has a wound to lick or an axe to grind, it's no great surprise that Simeon is murdered on Christmas Eve. Indeed, his death should probably go down in literary history as the best Christmas gift, ever.

I quite enjoyed resolving Simeon's murder. Some parts -- the location of the diamonds, for example -- I worked out on my own well ahead of time and I was partially correct in my guess that someone was a bastard, but I never would have guessed the identity of the murderer. A little embarrassing considering, in hindsight, how many clues Poirot laid down. The mustache, the constant mention of family similarities, etc. But I couldn't see it for all the false trails that were also laid down.

But that's okay! Half the fun was just going along with the story, watching Poirot use his magnificent little grey cells. Overall, Hercule Poirot's Christmas was a good read -- the characters were pretty well developed for a Christie mystery and the plot was both clever well-paced. And I love the cover art for this edition of Hercule Poirot's Christmas! So gruesomely festive with its green holly leaves and berry-red blood spatter!

Hercule Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2007)

Around Connecticut: Downton Abbey Cooking Demonstration

Sunday, we attended a Downton Abbey-themed cooking demonstration at the Silo Cooking School at Hunt Hill Farm. I'd worried many of the participants would be dressed in their Downton finest and we'd look odd dressed for contemporary Connecticut cold, but I needn't have worried as everyone else came dressed for cold and the only furs I saw were more for warmth than ostentation (Did make me think I should have dug out my faux arctic fox fur from the garlic closet ... What? You don't store garlic and potatoes in your coat closet?).

The cooking demonstration was led by Chef Michael Chase of The White Horse Country Pub & Restaurant with the pub's owner, John Harris, providing commentary about Downton Abbey, English great houses, and English culture. I loved the demonstration portion, because it's always a treat to watch other people cook -- particularly professional chefs using pots that look like they've spent years being cooked with in a real kitchen. Also, they were all both extremely knowledgeable and terribly shy ... it was adorable. I developed several irrational crushes within minutes.

Watching the Chefs Working On Lobster Thermidor
Chefs preparing lobster thermidor
I was less taken with the historical commentary as it seemed very much ... IDK ... the all-singing, all-dancing Disney version of life in the Empire at the time(s) of Downton Abbey. The rest of the audience seemed to eat it up so, though, and I'm guessing that's what a lot of Americans watch Downton to experience. Anyway, I kept my thoughts to myself but The Husband, being snarkily British, was full of whispered asides and eye rolls. When then bagpiper came out at the end, I thought The Husband would die from horror (indeed, I will remember his Bagpiper Face forever) and I had to try so hard not to laugh.

Clearly, we are just snobby assholes.

What we ate:
  • Champagne Cocktail & Classic Smoked Salmon Sandwiches (upstair and adapted from The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook)
  • Oxtail Soup (downstairs)
  • Lobster Thermador (upstairs)
  • Steak & Kidney Pie (downstairs)
  • Crêpe Suzette (upstairs)
We came away with copies of all the recipes and I'm definitely looking forward to giving steak and kidney pie (yes, with actual kidneys) a whirl.

Watching the Chefs Dish Up Oxtail Soup
Dishing up oxtail soup

12 January 2014

Ginger Oatmeal Cookies

I promised one of my coworkers cookies as thanks for all the help he's given me this week, what with so many staff members struck down by winter ailments. I baked him ginger oatmeal cookies as, while he likes cookies, he prefers goodies he can pretend are good for him! Oatmeal is heart-healthy and ginger is known for its anti-inflammatory effects, so ...

Ginger Oatmeal Cookies

Ginger Oatmeal Cookies
Adapted from Taste of Home
Makes about 24 cookies

Ingredients
½ cup shortening
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
¼ cup molasses
1½ cups white whole wheat flour [King Arthur Flour's 100% Organic White Whole Wheat]
¾ cup old-fashioned oats
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground ginger
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp allspice
¼ cup crystallized ginger chips [King Arthur Flour's Mini Diced Ginger]

Directions
Combine dry ingredients and set aside.

Beat together shortening and sugar until it is light and fluffy. Beat in egg and molasses. Gradually add the dry ingredients to the creamed mixture and mix until well combined.

Roll into 1-inch balls. Place 2 inches apart on parchment-lined baking sheets. Gently flatten with the bottom of a glass. Bake at 350°F for 10 minutes or just until set. Remove to wire racks to cool.
This cookies were good -- crispy on the outside with touch of chewiness at the center and very rich with spice. I was quite pleased by how well they turned out and my coworker was very happy.

I have shared this recipe at these delicious blog parties:
Swing by and link up your own dishes!

11 January 2014

All Our Yesterdays


I stare at the drain in the center of the concrete floor. It was the first thing I saw when they locked me in this cell, and I’ve barely looked away since.

At first I was just obstinate, dragging my feet in the thin prison slippers they gave me so they were forced to pull me along the hallway by both arms. But when I saw the drain, I started to scream.
I'm usually not one for time travel stories -- my mind gets tangled up in the how of it and refuses to suspend disbelief -- but I could have eaten All Our Yesterdays up with a spoon. The storytelling was topnotch and, by the time a character tried to explain how time travel worked, I was too hooked on the story to get hung up on the how. Tesseract? Tardis? Particle collider? Apparently, it can be anything if you just keep telling me a good story.

And the ending ... ahh! So bittersweet. So right. And, gah, I can't really talk about it or much of the preceding novel, really, because SPOILERS. There's Em and Finn, imprisoned by a madman who invented a device that turned the world upside down and inside out. And there's Marina, living in a world that's still right side up, whose biggest problem is trying to tell her neighbor, James, that she loves him. And then it's all SPOILERS.

Go, read this book, so I have someone to talk about it with.

All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill (Hyperion, 2013)

10 January 2014

Cheese Sauce On Everything, Please

I bought some cracker meal while playing around with recipe ideas for January's Improv Challenge and, while I instinctively knew it would work best for frying, I tried to be healthy and used it to bread baked turkey cutlets. While the results looked good, they tasted a bit meh.

Cheesy Turkey Cutlets

Cracker meal is just what it sounds like -- finely ground crackers. I bought mine from Nuts.com, but you can certainly make your own if you have access to a food processor. Bashing a bunch of crackers with a rolling pin will work, but the cracker crumbs need to be very fine and uniform, so you may have to go at it for a while. (I admit it's an excellent way to work out a case of the angries and the stuff keeps forever in a tightly sealed container so ... may I suggest diy cracker meal as some fine kitchen therapy?)

I served the cutlets with broccoli and mashed potatoes (and cheese sauce over everything, of course). While the cutlets were certainly edible, I know they would have been better pounded a bit thinner and friedfriedfried (and my final version does use very thin fried pork cutlets). They lacked crunch, color, and flavor. If not for the cheese sauce, they would have been completely forgettable.

Truly, the cheese sauce stole the show. Creamy and sharp with just a touch of heat from the mustard and pepper ... I'll be making it again just to pour over broccoli or cauliflower! It's a complete cheater sauce as it's just canned condensed "cheddar" tarted up with (real) shredded cheddar, dry mustard, paprika, and black pepper. Oh, and beer. Because beer is cheddar's BFF.

There's a restaurant the next town over that makes a cheddar ale soup I really want to clone. Except then I would eat nothing but cheddar ale soup and toasted baguettes and that way lies madness.

08 January 2014

Wordless Wednesday: All That Jazz

Jazz Age Christmas Tree
Christmas tree decorated for the Jazz Age
@ The New Britain Museum of American Art

07 January 2014

Pan-Roasted Pork Tenderloin

I'd bought a pork tenderloin to turn into escalopes for pork schnitzel, but changed my mind at the last minute (too tired/cold coming on) and decided to sear it and roast it in a skillet. I'm not sure it saved much time, but it definitely dirtied fewer dishes!

Pan-Roasted Pork Tenderloin
Night photo under the terrible kitchen fluorescents. Yay.
When I'm tired, like last night, it feels as if my enameled iron skillet weighs too darn much (and is awkward as smeg to move about), but the fact it transitions so easily between stove top and oven makes it worth every ounce. Indeed, I've considered retiring some of my baking dishes, because I don't use them as much since I acquired the skillet.

I used Boxed Goodes' Harvest Season to season the tenderloin, which is a blend of sea salt, sugar, celery seed, onion, nutmeg, coriander, white pepper, and porcini mushroom. I won an assortment of Boxed Goodes' seasoning blends a few months ago, at a friend's benefit supper, and I am completely smitten. Harvest Season is one of my favorites and I've used it to season beef, chicken, and duck with delicious results. I have about two tablespoons left and then ... I'll have to find their shop and buy all the things! Terrible, I know.
Pan-Roasted Pork Tenderloin

Ingredients
2 tsp duck fat
1 lb pork tenderloin
Seasoning blend, as desired
[Boxed Goodes' Harvest Season]
5 oz low-sodium fat-free chicken broth
1 oz sherry [Taylor]

Directions
Remove pork from fridge, trim well, and rub very generously with the seasoning blend. Let the roast sit for about 30 minutes to reach room temperature.

Heat oven to 425°F.

Heat duck fat in a cast-iron or other oven-proof skillet until it shimmers. Sear pork on three sides for one minute per side or until beautifully browned, then flip onto the last raw side and pop the pork in the oven for 15 minutes or until the meat reaches 145°F.

Pan-Roasted Pork Tenderloin

Remove the skillet from the oven, plate the pork, cover loosely with foil, and allow to rest for 10 minutes.

While the pork rests, return the skillet to the stove top, turn the temperature up to high, and add the broth and sherry. Stir, scraping up the stuck on bits, until the sauce is reduced by half. Serve drizzled over the pork.

Top 10 Tuesday: 2014 Goals &/or Resolutions


An optimist stays up until midnight to see the new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves. -- Bill Vaughan

It's the first Top Ten Tuesday of 2014. The best (or worst?) time to set goals and make resolutions. As this is a bookish blog, most of my goals are reading or blogging related:
  1. Only purchase books I intend to read rightnowthisminute.
  2. Post a book review a week (I'm reading tons, but am very behind in writing them up).
  3. Read books I already own.
  4. Don't read books I feel I "should" or "must" read (unless required to do so for work, obviously).
  5. Reply to comments.
  6. Unearth CueCat and update my LibraryThing account.
  7. Spend some time outside every day (walking to/from car does not count).
  8. Sew a lap quilt just for me to snuggle under while reading (keep hogging the one I made The Husband).
  9. Stop treating my Kindle like a giant storage device and actually start reading what's on it.
  10. Remember that book-blogging is fun!

05 January 2014

Baking for My Love: Triple Chocolate Chip Cookies

I gave The Husband a copy of William-Sonoma's Essentials of Baking for Christmas with the understanding he would select recipes from the book and I would attempt to follow them. It's very similar to the Cake-A-Month plan I gave my dad umptieth years ago, but includes all kinds of baking and is not necessary limited to one item per month. I couldn't decide, when I bought the book, whether this was the best or lamest gift ever, and even though The Husband seemed chuffed, I'm still worried it's a crap gift.


(Because, if I really loved The Husband, I would be baking for him all the damn time. Wouldn't I? Except when I ask him what kind of cake/cupcake/cookie he'd like, he is not capable of articulating his desires and I get annoyed. Who wants to spend hours baking what may be the wrong cake? At least now he can point at the pictures).

tl;dr

I baked some cookies! Beautiful, golden "Triple Chocolate Chip Cookies" with soft, chewy centers and crispy outsides. I was a bit worried when I took them out of the oven, because they were very puffy and looked nothing like those in the book. But after they'd cooled, they looked more the thing.

Triple Chocolate Chip Cookies

The recipe says it makes thirty cookies and I managed twenty-eight, which was pretty good considering at least two of my cookies seemed monstrously large when compared to their mates. The inconsistency in sizes always amuses me, as I use a cookie scoop and thus they should all be the same. What can I say? I am not the most exacting baker.

Also, I like big cookies (and I cannot lie / You other brothers can't deny ...).

The New Deadwardians, Volume 1


I'm not a great fan of zombie or vampire literature, because I have great difficulty suspending disbelief as I just can't accept a real-world or historical setting populated by the restless undead. I get bogged down in how such a world could actually function -- how would infrastructure be maintained? where would food come from? how do monsters go on forever? -- and I tend to lose track of what is, quite probably, a ripping good story.

Interestingly, aside from some niggling concerns regarding commerce and agriculture (for example, how do you farm or engage in distance commerce with the Restless roaming the countryside?), I had no difficulty gobbling down The New Deadwardians. It's set in an alternate Edwardian Age after a zombie apocalypse (the Restless Curse) decimated humanity. The British were clearly losing the war when they somehow found (or created or were given, it's not clear) a "cure," turning the officers and privileged classes into vampires, whom the Restless cannot "see" and, therefore, ignore.

(As I type this, I can feel my brain trying to come up with arguments for why that wouldn't work as a long term solution ... to which I say "Shh, brain. It's all make believe").

Fifty years on, the Restless are held back by fences and walls. Most of the privileged classes have taken the "Cure" and are, in all appreciable ways, perpetually Young while the lower classes are perpetually trapped between them and the Restless. This creates the potential for awesome cultural shenanigans -- what happens when "the people in charge" will always be in charge? What happens to art? Science? Philosophy? How does it feel to be of the lower classes and know the Young will be always with you, boot (or fangs) on your throat?

The New Deadwardians touches upon these subjects, but is mostly a straight up police procedural. Someone has terminated the un-life of a Young nob -- the first murder in fifty years (ignoring, I presume, murders of the lower class people by the Young or each other) -- and it's up to the Met's last homicide detective, Chief Inspector George Tuttle, to solve a crime that could very well upset the balance of power.

As a police procedural, The New Deadwardians works fairly well. The initial suspects and their reasons are fairly credible and the police work will seem familiar to any one who watched the early season's of say, Foyle's War (not quite the same time period, but the style of detection is largely the same). There was a plot twist about two-thirds of the way through that left me SEVERELY ANNOYED, but it turned out to be a red herring and I can safely say I was pleased with the resolution.

Overall, I enjoyed The New Deadwardians and wouldn't mind seeing another volume ... although I suspect it's the kind of franchise that could easily be over-mined for material. Certainly, it would be nice to see more prominent female characters. As it stands now, being set in alternate Edwardian England and all, the few female characters play traditional, supportive roles of mother, maid, whore, etc. There is a whiff of suffrage and revolution in the air and I'd like to see where that takes Chief Inspector Tuttle. But I have a feeling any sequel(s) will be more about magic and conspiracies within the halls of power.

The New Deadwardians by Dan Abnett w/ illus. by INJ Culbard (Vertigo, 2013)

03 January 2014

Raspberry Chocolate Bites

I made these little bites for New Year's Day as a sweet way to begin 2014. The cookie butter can be easily replaced with Nutella or any other cookie butter/chocolate nut spread you desire. Also, if you have chocolate wafer cookies on hand, you could crush a few of those and use the crumbs in place of the crushed hazel nuts.

Raspberry Bites

Do not omit the raspberries and crushed whatever garnish. Without them, they're just pretty much just chocolate pudding cups. A perfectly delicious pudding, yes, but lacking brightness and sophistication. We all want 2014 to be brighter and more sophisticated than 2013, yes?
Raspberry Chocolate Bites
Serves 2

Ingredients
6 mini phyllo shells, thawed according to directions
2 Tbsp mascarpone cheese
1 Tbsp Williams-Sonoma Cookies And Cream Butter (or Nutella)
Splash of milk, as needed
6 raspberries
Crushed hazelnuts, as needed

Directions
Beat mascarpone and cookie butter together with a little milk until it is fluffy and more spreadable. Divide between filo cups. Garnish with raspberries and hazelnuts.

I have shared this recipe at these delicious blog parties:
Swing by and link up your own dishes!

Very Good, Jeeves!


The Husband gave me the complete Jeeves and Wooster with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry for my birthday, because he knows how strongly I Fry and Laurie. I've been trying very hard not to just sit down and watch every episode in one utterly debauched go, but it's hard. Jeeves and Wooster is the best kind of television -- fun, yes, but also quite clever and wickedly sharp.

And I'm pleased to say the actual short stories are equally fine. I meant to start at the very beginning with The Man with Two Left Feet, but Wikipedia told me "Bertram did not have a surname, and it remains a matter of considerable debate amongst Wodehouse scholars as to whether he was indeed Bertie Wooster, or merely Bertie Mannering-Phipps" so I just decided to just go ahead and grab whatever looked most interesting on the library shelf.

Which was Very Good, Jeeves!, because it included "Jeeves and the Yule-Tide Spirit," making it all seasonal and shizzle. While it may not be the first Jeeves story collection, Very Good, Jeeves! served as a fine introduction to Bertie Wooster and his "personal gentleman's gentleman," Jeeves. As with the television series, it's clear Jeeves is the subtle brains operating behind the scenes while Bertie, with a seemingly inhuman tolerance for drink and cigs, is a well-meaning and utterly lovable idiot. Bertie gets into scrapes, Jeeves gets him out, and Bertie seldom realizes quite what's happened. Occasionally, Bertie attempts to exert his authority over Jeeves by behaving as if he were the brains, and Jeeves lets him dangle for a bit, but everything always ends well ... and, again, Bertie is usually unaware of half the things that happened around him. (I fear I make Bertie sound dreadful, but he's actually impossible to dislike).

Some of the stories in Very Good, Jeeves! have also been featured in the television series and I was really chuffed to see that the narration and dialogue in the television series comes so close to the stories. It was very easy, as I read along, to hear Fry and Laurie's voices in my head.

If you enjoy quiet little stories where not much happens, but there's scads of clever dialogue and literary allusions, Very Good, Jeeves! might be just the thing.
It was the morning of the day on which I was slated to pop down to my Aunt Agatha’s place at Woollam Chersey in the county of Herts for a visit of three solid weeks; and, as I seated myself at the breakfast table, I don’t mind confessing that the heart was singularly heavy. We Woosters are men of iron, but beneath my intrepid exterior at that moment there lurked a nameless dread.
'Jeeves,' I said, 'I am not the merry old self this morning.'
'Indeed, sir?'
'No, Jeeves. Far from it. Far from the merry old self.'
'I am sorry to hear that sir.'
He uncovered the fragrant eggs and b., and I pronged a moody forkful.
'Why - this is what I keep asking myself, Jeeves, — why has my Aunt Agatha invited me to her country seat?'
'I could not say, sir.'
'Not because she is fond of me.'
'No, sir.'
'It is a well-established fact that I give her a pain in the neck. How it happens I cannot say, but every time our paths cross, so to speak, it seems to be a mere matter of time before I perpetrate some ghastly floater and have her hopping after me with her hatchet.'
Very Good, Jeeves! by P.G. Wodehouse (Overlook Press, 2006)

02 January 2014

Failing At Reading Challenges; Or, I Said I'd Do What Now?

It occurs to me I was registered for two reading challenges in 2013 and I see, as I foretold last January, I did indeed start out strong with regular posts and then petered out after a few months. At least, that was so with the 2013 Graphic Novel Challenge.

I didn't read anything for the E-book Challenge. Which isn't to say I haven't been reading things on my Kindle. I just never wrote them up to count them against the challenge and now it is too late. Also, I've added about 20 new titles to my Kindle since starting the Challenge so am in even worse straits. Surprise.


Books I actually read for the 2013 Graphic Novel Challenge:
  1. Dawn of the Arcana, Volume One
  2. Twin Spica, Volume One
  3. Twin Spica, Volume Two
  4. Lola: A Ghost Story
  5. Adventure Time with Fiona & Cake, Issue One
  6. The Drops of God, Volume One
  7. Chi's Sweet Home, Volume Eight
  8. Yotsuba&!, Volume One
  9. Polly & the Pirates, Volume Two
  10. Ignition City
  11. Three Shadows
That's eleven out of twenty-four. Fabulous. Simply fabulous.

No challenges in 2014!

01 January 2014

Fast Duck, Easy Duck

I was ridiculously excited to discover boneless duck breasts at my local Stop and Shop. Hopefully, they're not just in stock for the holidays, because duck breasts are delicious and I'd love to make them a regular item on my weekly grocery list. A boneless skinned duck breast is not only quite low in fat and calories, but also very flavorful and cooks up in a matter of minutes. (Seriously, they spend more time sitting around than they do cooking).

Boneless Skin-On Duck Breasts
You have no idea how excited I am!

Anyway, I cooked two for dinner by following the instructions on their packaging and they were fabulous. I burnt the skin, because I had the skillet closer to high than medium-high, but I'd never intended to eat the skin, anyway. I was a little bummed to realize burnt skin wasn't going to yield very nice duck fat, but I still have a jar in the fridge from other duck experiments so it's not the end of the world.

I peeled the burnt skin from the breasts just before slicing and plating them. The flesh was flippin' fantastic -- tender, succulent, lean and very flavorful with nary a hint anything had charred.
Easy Boneless Duck Breasts

Ingredients
2 boneless skin on duck breasts (about 8 oz each)
Seasonings as desired [Boxed Goodes' Harvest Season]

Directions
Remove duck from packaging and pat dry. Score skin (do not cut the flesh) in a crisscross pattern. Season liberally. Allow to sit for 10 minutes.

Scored Duck
I found a serrated-edged steak knife worked best for scoring.

Heat a heavy skillet to medium-high. Add duck, skin side down, and cook for 2 minutes. Drain off fat (there will be a lot). My skillet has a convenient pouring spout so I just poured it straight into a jar. If yours does not, try using a ladle to spoon it out. If you haven't burnt the skin, try to save the fat because it is rather wonderful to cook with.


Searing Duck
All that liquid? That's fat. It was a dry pan to start, but 2 minutes later ...

Continue to cook, skin-side down, for another 2 minutes. Flip and cook for 6 minutes or until meat is 145. Remove from skillet, cover loosely with foil, and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Slice thinly and eat.

Sliced Duck
Perfectly cooked duck! From my kitchen. Hot damn.

I have shared this recipe at these delicious blog parties:
Swing by and link up your own dishes!