31 July 2015

Presto, Pesto!

Every spring, I plant basil. Every summer, I run about like a mad woman trying to use up all the basil that's suddenly overwhelming my garden. But not this summer. No. I've finally done the thing I always say I should do. Namely, I've made and frozen pesto. Hurrah. Summery pesto goodness shall be mine in the dark, bleak heart of winter.

About half the basil in the garden.

Of course, I couldn't just use an ice cube tray like many of the pesto-freezing people on Pinterest. No, I had to go and buy one of the fancy-pants Ball® Frozen Herb Starters, which are essentially a pair of summer-green, BPA-free, flexible silicone trays with snap-on lids. I first saw it at Agway when I stopped by for canning jars and pickling salt, but I ended up buying mine from Amazon because it cost less. (The exact opposite was true of the canning jars and pickling salt, by the way).

Toasted walnuts, not pine nuts, because that's how I roll.

I followed Ball's "Perfect Pesto" recipe, using the walnut option instead of pine nuts as I thought walnuts would taste more awesome. The whole process -- from fending off emotionally needy cats whilst harvesting the basil to plopping spoonfuls of pesto in the silicone tray -- couldn't have taken more than 20 minutes. I had a little leftover basil, because my "gently packed" cups of basil were probably not as gently packed as the recipe writers intended, which I spread over the salmon fillet I'd intended to bake for dinner. The pesto -- bright and summery -- paired well with the salmon and I'll be trying that combination again.

Beautiful pesto salmon.

One recipe made one tray of cubes -- that's nine cubes, each probably twice the size of a regular ice cube. The kit comes with two trays and lids, so I still have a tray to play with while the pesto freezes. Since I have a lot of chives on hand, I'm thinking chives in olive oil? Or chives in butter? Or both? Once the pesto tray frozen, I intend to decant the cubes into another container, freeing up the tray for other uses.

Neat little rows of basiliciousness.

29 July 2015

Cool as a Cucumber

Cucumber citrus cooler! Yes, I juiced a pound of cucumbers! Basically, I didn't have enough cucumbers left for either of the pickle recipes still on my list and was looking for a creative way to use the last pound up. I read through few recipes for cucumber aqua fresca I'd found on Pinterest and then pretty much did my own thing.


Cucumber Citrus Cooler

Yield: 4

Ingredients

  • 1 lb pickling (kirby) cucumbers, peeled and chopped
  • 4 lemons, juiced
  • 1 lime, juiced
  • 2 cups cold filtered water
  • ¼ cup sugar, more or less to taste
  • Crushed ice, as needed
  • Curls of lime peel, for decoration

Instructions

  1. Puree cucumbers in food processor or blender until they resemble a green slushie.
  2. Pour cucumber puree into a fine-mesh sieve suspended over a large bowl and let sit for 15 minutes or so while the cucumber juices drain out into the bowl beneath.
  3. Discard pulp.
  4. Combine cucumber, lemon, lime juices and water in a pitcher. Add sugar, stirring briskly until sugar is completely dissolved.
  5. Fill tumblers with crushed ice and top with cucumber cooler mixture. Add a curl of lime juice to each glass for garnish, if you're feeling fancy.

This cooler is pucker-up tart when it's fresh, but mellows quite nicely if left alone in the refrigerator overnight -- the cucumber really comes to the front and you end up with a bright, refreshing drink that even The Husband admits is pretty tasty. (If you want to turn it into a more spirited beverage, just add a generous splash of tequila to each glass).

Wordless Wednesday: Raspberries & Pokeweed

A tangle of pokeweed and wild raspberry.

28 July 2015

Top 10 Tuesday: Characters Who Are Book Nerds


This week's Top Ten Tuesday is all about our favorite bookish characters -- book nerds who love to read or write or just be around books.
  • Florence Green, The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald. Florence opens a bookshop in a little seaside town and ticks off the local shopkeepers by making a success of it.
  • Catherine Warner, Bookends by Jane Green. Cath quits her job in advertising to open a the bookshop of her dreams, falls for a sexy real estate agent, and reconnects with an old friend ... who may not be much of a friend.
  • Laura Horsley, Love Letters by Katie Fforde. Laura agrees to organize a literary festival in the bucolic English countryside only to be overwhelmed by the amount of work involved ... including traveling to Ireland to track down a reclusive (and infuriatingly attractive) author.
  • Betsy, Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace. Betsy loves writing and the series follows her from her very first preteen literary efforts onward into adulthood.
  • Emily Starr, Emily Climbs by L.M. Montgomery. Unable to imagine a world in which she is not a writer, Emily is horrified when her conservative aunts forbid her to write a single word of fiction while attending high school.


  • Nyx, Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge. Pledged from birth to be the bride of the "Gentle Lord" (and trained from early childhood to kill him), Nyx reads to escape (literally and figuratively).
  • Cath Avery, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. Cath is a passionate fan of the fictional Simon Snow series -- so much so that she had devoted quite a lot of her time to writing Carry On, Simon, a fan fiction about series.
  • Catherine Morland, Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. Over-imaginative young Catherine has read far too many Gothic novels and imagines all kinds of ghastly doings around her.
  • Hailey Genest, Taken With You by Shannon Stacey. Hailey, a very modern small town librarian, gets lost on a wilderness hike with her best friend and is rescued by the grungy-yet-impossibly-hot new game warden.
  • Charmain Baker, House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones. Respectable, sheltered Charmain spends her days lost in books and dreams of becoming a librarian. Then she house-sits for the Royal Wizard Norland and her world is turned on its head.

24 July 2015

Nova


In a far future universe, humanity is at war with itself. A temporary peace has been struck and five hundred refugees have been released from their internment camp to a waystation where they'll be sorted out and sent on to surviving family or friends. On the surface of it, Lia Johansen is just another orphaned, friendless sixteen-year-old refugee. But Lia is more than she seems. Lia is a living bomb.

Yeh. So there's that. Except, of course, she doesn't go BOOM and kill everyone. Because I'm pretty sure you can't have the heroine of a young adult novel slaughter thousands of innocent people. It's just not done, darling.
Even if all those people are possessed by invisible, incorporeal, parasitic aliens.

There’'s a lot going on in Nova. When I first began reading the book, it seemed pretty straightforward, but as the story progressed more layers of nuance and complication were added to Lia's backstory until it had become so twisty-turny that, frankly, an invasion by invisible parasitic aliens did not come as a surprise.

So did I actually enjoy reading Nova? Yes? Ish? The original premise -- human bomb suffers a glitch and doesn't explode, then struggles to understand her purpose and define herself -- fascinated me. Lia herself is an extremely admirable character – she demonstrates continued courage and inner strength in while trapped in a terrible situation. Yes, Lia cries and gets a wee bit depressed, but who wouldn't? Awful as her problems are, Lia tries to think them through to find a resolution she can live with. She just doesn't give up.

So Lia's great. But the addition of the aliens and the romance with Michael detracted from my enjoyment. The aliens felt like a cop-out -- Aliens Are Bastards -- so we readers wouldn't have to deal with the reality that Humans Are Really Bastards. The romance with Michael was just so ... predictable. As soon as Lia met Michael, I knew I there was going to be a "oh-my-god-I-love-him-but-I'm-a-bomb-but-I-love-him-but-" and there was and it was annoying. Why did they have to fall in love so quickly? Why not be good friends? It's not as if the romance brought anything extra to the plot. Although, if you're a romantic, I guess you could say the romance brought an extra poignancy to Lia's final act.

Mostly, I wanted more Shar. More Teal. More Captain Kerr.

Maybe in the next book?

Nova by Margaret Fortune (Daw Books, 2015)

22 July 2015

Wordless Wednesday: Cranesbill in Bloom

The three perennial geranium "Rozanne" I planted last autumn are finally in bloom!

21 July 2015

Pickle Time!

I'd been hankering for a Vacu Vin Instant Pickler ever since I first saw one last year, but always managed to delay the purchase by reminding myself I didn't need another thing cluttering up my kitchen. And then I went shopping at Sur La Table one night after work, but before supper, so I was both HUNGRY and TIRED and my resistance to shiny things was dangerously looooow.

(Seriously, can't shop hungry. Or tired. Even if it's "just" a "quick stop" to pick up some on-sale melamine picnicware, I am bound to go all Bad Decision Bear and come home with some highly coveted, but not necessarily needful thing.


Like this a Vacu Vin Instant Pickler! Which is actually doubleplusknobsonAWESOME, by the way. I made slightly-sweet-yet-very-dilly refrigerator pickles earlier this week using a pretty basic Betty Crocker recipe as my base and they came out fab. I used farmers market pickling cucumbers, garden dill, and red onion, omitted the carrots, halved the sugar, and crammed in LOTS of fresh dill.


And the next day, I had perfect pickles. Crisp, dilly-sweet slices ideal for piling on sandwiches or snacking straight from the container. Was it the best $15 I've ever spent? Probably not, but I'm still so enamored with the Vacu Vin Instant Pickler that I'll be probably be making pickles every week for weeks to come so it will definitely earn its price tag.

Cruel Beauty


After I devoured Crimson Bound, I went in search of more books by Hodge and was shocked to realize there was only one other -- Cruel Beauty. What have you been doing with your time, Hodge, that there aren't more books by you? Now, the Young Adult librarian sold Cruel Beauty to me as fast-and-loose retelling of Beauty and the Beast -- and that's true -- but Cruel Beauty also plays with elements from East of the Sun and West of the Moon, Eros and Psyche, and even Bluebeard.

Anyway, Cruel Beauty is just YUMMY. A rich yet bittersweet tale that twists and turns like the passages of Ignifex's house, constantly hinting at more than it reveals (or maybe I'm just not so smart, afterall) until suddenly everything is made clear. The world is kinda-but-not-really Ancient Greece by way of Victorian England -- lots of classical Greek names but also cabbage rose wallpaper and puffed sleeves. It's an unexpected combination, but I found it refreshing and fun. It felt as if anything thing could happen in a world like that and it pretty much does.

I guess I should talk about our heroine, Nyx? She's frequently a rather angry person and her internalized wishy-washyness about her own feelings (embrace your anger!) can be a bit exasperating. Of course Nyx is angry. She was born to marry The Destroyer and kill him or die trying. Where was Nyx's opportunity for silly, girlish dreams? What reason had she to grow up with a gentle heart or sense of lovingkindness? So, yes, Nyx is an angry girl. She's also witty, intelligent, and bold.

And she saves the world. So hurrah for Nyx.


Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge (HarperCollins, 2014)

18 July 2015

Fancy Oven S'mores

I'm calling these "fancy" oven s'mores simply because I used milk chocolate McVities Digestives instead of plain ol' graham crackers. I'm thinking milk or dark chocolate Hobnobs would be pretty fine, too.

Anyway, making these is easy-peasy. Just turner on your broiler. Arrange a few digestives on a baking tray. Top them with marshmallows. Pop the try in the oven and broiler for 1½ minutes or until the marshmallows are toasted to your liking. Remove from oven, top each with another digestive and nom away.

So fiddly and difficult to assemble, amiright?

All toasty brown goodness.

Yum!

17 July 2015

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra


On the day he was due to retire, Inspector Ashwin Chopra discovered that he had inherited an elephant ...

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra is a slim, quick read with an uncomplicated plot and characters. It feels a bit like it wants to be a cozy mystery, but (imho) there's a little too much death and violence for that. Khan's description of Mumbai -- its smells, sounds, and textures -- are well wrought and gave the book a very distinct sense of place. Sometimes, you know, I read a book set in New York City or London or Tokyo and the story feels as if it could have been set in any large city, anywhere. Reading The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, I really felt like I was in Mumbai.

I only wish Khan had put as much energy and skill into characterizing Chopra's long-suffering wife, Poppy, as he did into Mumbai. Poppy seems, at best, under-developed, and, at worst, simply ridiculous. I tried to tell myself that, in a detective story that co-stars a baby elephant, it is perfectly reasonable Poppy should behave like a character in a Bollywood potboiler. But her histrionics grew wearying and Chopra's evasive interactions with Poppy soon began to get on my nerves.

Excluding my difficulties with the under-developed and histrionic Poppy, I greatly enjoyed The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra and will certainly keep an eye out for the next book in the series. Which is likely to be a while as this book only releases in the US on September 15. (My copy of The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra is an advanced reading copy I received at BEA. It is perfectly possible the ARC differs in some ways from the official print edition, so my experience reading the book may differ from yours).


The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan (Mulholland Books, 2015)

16 July 2015

Improv Challenge: Pretzels & Mustard

I'm just going to straight out confess that I made July's Improv Challenge recipe when I came home from work Monday night, so there was no time for rehearsal. I ran in the door, turned on the oven, and just started throwing chicken, mustard, and pretzels around.


So while we both enjoyed this dish -- The Husband thought the chicken was cooked "perfectly" and the "nut topping" was really nice (when I explained it was pretzels, not nuts, he merely shrugged and said that explained why they weren't as crunchy as he'd expected!) -- I think it could be better. Longer marinade time for the chicken, for one, and more finely crushed pretzels, for another. Also, maybe some garlic in the marinade and dressing? Mmm. Garlic.

If you have a food processor, feel free to pulverize your pretzels with it. I was all hepped up with Monday Grrr and was more than happy to bash away at the pretzels with my meat tenderizer. Seriously, it's good therapy!

Also, if you prefer a bit of sweetness, you could just use your favorite honey mustard vinaigrette rather than making the marinade and dressing.

Pretzel-Crusted Chicken With Salad Garnish

Yield: 3

Ingredients

  • 3 similarly-sized boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp white wine vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp + ½ tsp coarse grain Dijon mustard [Grey Poupon Country Dijon]
  • 6 oz grape tomatoes, halved
  • 6 oz salted pretzels [Snyder Of Hanover Olde Tyme Pretzels]
  • Baby arugula, as needed
  • Salt and pepper, as desired

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 425°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil and set aside.
  2. Place chicken breasts between two sheets of wax or parchment paper on a sturdy, flat surface. Firmly pound the chicken with a rolling pin or the smooth side of a meat mallet until they’re all flattish and of similar thickness.
  3. In a large dish, whisk together 2 tablespoons grainy mustard, 1 tablespoon olive oil, and 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar. Add chicken to the dish. Toss to coat well and let marinate for 15 minutes.
  4. Meanwhile, whisk together the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil, 1 tablespoon of white wine vinegar, and ½ teaspoon mustard in a bowl. Add the tomatoes and toss to coat. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside until needed.
  5. Place pretzels in a food processor and whiz around until pulverized (you'll want to leave some small-ish chunks for both aesthetics and crunch). Or put pretzels in a food storage bag and bash with your meat tenderizer until they form crumbs of the desired size. Pour pretzel crumbs into a pie plate or shallow bowl.
  6. Remove chicken from marinade. Press chicken into pretzel crumbs, coating both sides.
  7. Arrange crumb-coated chicken on the prepared baking sheet. Mist the tops of the chicken breasts with nonstick spray. Bake for 15 minutes or until pretzels are nicely browned and chicken is 165 °F.
  8. Divide the chicken among three plates. Artistically arrange the arugula on top. Spoon the tomatoes over the arugula and serve immediately.






15 July 2015

Wordless Wednesday: At the Farmers Market

Garlic and a snarl of garlic scapes.

Pattypan squash and zucchini.

Bunnicula's been at the cucumbers!

14 July 2015

Top 10 Tuesday: Last 10 To Come My Way


This week’s Top Ten Tuesday is all about the books that just came our way – bought, borrowed, given, etc. My list is 70% library books, because I have an awful lot of them on hand. Again. Even though I keep trying to cut back and focus on reading the books I already own. There’s just something so tempting about library shelves, you know. They whisper and seduce and, the next thing I know, I’m leaving the library with more books than I returned. Again.


Library Books:

  • The Wrath & the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh
  • Steamlust: Steampunk Erotic Romance edited by Kristina Wright
  • Irrepressible: the Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham by Emily Bingham
  • Sweetshop of Dreams: A Novel with Recipes by Jenny Colgan
  • The Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene
  • The Princess and the Pony by Kate Beaton
  • Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge


Bought Books:

  • Thor, Volume 1: Goddess of Thunder
  • Gotham Academy, Volume 1: Welcome to Gotham Academy
  • Rat Queens, Volume 2: The Far Reaching Tentacles of N’Rygoth

10 July 2015

Crimson Bound


Crimson Bound is another one of those books the Young Adult librarian thrust upon me when I last wandered through her demesne, complaining about how I had "nothing" to read. I'd never read anything by Hodge, but the cover was attractive (yes, I do that) and the Young Adult librarian promised me a dark retelling of Little Red Riding Hood with a well-written female protagonist and proper scary monsters.

Crimson Bound delivered all those things and more. If you're a fan of Little Red Riding Hood or a want a retelling that hews close to the source material, Crimson Bound probably isn't for you. Yes, there's a red cloak. And a wolf of sorts, I guess, if you accept "wolf" as a metaphor. And an elderly female relative in a woodsy cottage ... but she's no granny and no-one averts her doom.

No, it's best to think of Crimson Bound as quite its own story. A rather mesmerizing, darkly beautiful, and lyrical one, at that. The story takes lots of twists and turns in its telling with friends revealed as enemies, enemies becoming friends, and help springing up from unexpected places. In the end, nearly all the predictions I made as I read the story were proven deliciously wrong. Hodge's world building is fascinating. Much of story feels as if it's set in a dark dream Versailles with a weird there-are-monsters-in-the-woods vibe running through it that I found utterly absorbing. Also, I really enjoyed the use of the story of Tyr and Zisa as a framing story. Germanic folklore, hurrah.

If I have one quibble with this book, it's a small but persnickety one. I don't understand why Hodge decided to merge Rachelle's forestborn and the traitorous bloodhound into one character. For me, it made the bloodhound's betrayal less horrifying. Of course he was going to do wicked things to Rachelle! He. Was. Forestborn. It also skewed the story somewhat for me because it suggested The Devourer and its ilk had been interested in Rachelle for quite some time and, suddenly, she wasn't just a random girl who'd made a rash choice and was daily atoning for the consequences. No, suddenly, she was some kind of Fated Hero.

So ... more wickedness, please, and make it complicated!

Crimson Bound by Rosamund Hodge (HarperCollins, 2015)

08 July 2015

Wordless Wednesday: Baseball

Our local summer collegiate baseball team, the Bristol Blues, at Muzzy Field.

Basilicious Corn & Tomato Pasta Salad

I made this simple corn salad for a coworker's picnic using leftover roasted corn and basil from my garden. Since there's nothing in this salad that requires refrigeration, I feel it's fine left out on the counter for a good while, but I understand food safety folks may not agree so ymmv.


My go-to roasted corn recipe is to place the ears, trimmed but still in their husks, straight onto the rack of a 400°F oven and cook them for about 20 minutes or until they look pretty brown and the kitchen smells like corn. (Time really depends on number and size of ears, so you do have to keep an eye on them).

As a time saver, you can find bags of frozen roasted corn at most grocery stores and thaw them for use in this salad. Also, I used garlic vinegar (because GARLIC), but you could probably use white wine vinegar with equally good results.


Basilicious Corn & Tomato Pasta Salad

Yield: 6

Ingredients

  • 3 cups roasted corn (about 4 ears)
  • ¼ cup finely chopped red onion
  • 1 cup diced grape tomatoes
  • 3 oz mini farfalle (tiny bow tie) noodles, cooked as directed for al dente
  • Generous palmful of basil, chopped into small pieces
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 4 Tbsp garlic vinegar
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Instructions

  • Combine all ingredients in a large bowl, gently tossing to coat well. Cover and let rest for about an hour or refrigerate until ready to serve.

While the little bit of leftovers was still pretty tasty the next day, I wouldn't recommend making this too far ahead because it simply tasted best the day of. If you are going to make this hours ahead, stir the basil in just before serving, because otherwise it wilt and lose its bright color.

07 July 2015

Top 10 Tuesday: 10 Hyped Books I've Never Read


For this week’s Top Ten Tuesday, we're talking about hyped books we've never read. You know, those books it feels as if the entire universe is trying to get you to read -- "everyone" is RAVING about them and you find them for sale "everywhere" and, after enough overexposure, just the sight of them makes you go, "Ugh, not that again!" even though they might (just maybe) actually be pretty okay?


  • The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  • Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
  • The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  • The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  • The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  • The Secret by Rhonda Byrne
  • Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

03 July 2015

Repurposed Picnic Leftovers or "Hide It In Salad"

Is there anything sadder looking than a picked over vegetable tray the day after a picnic? Usually, I chop up whatever remains and throw it into a "Everything but the Kitchen Sink" tossed salad for lunch, but it was still the weekend and The Husband needed feeding, too, and salad is not really his favorite kind of supper. Happily, I had a box of Betty Crocker's "Classic" Suddenly Salad and knew he'd go for that ... appropriately amended with picnic leftovers.


I prepared the salad according to the directions on the box, then stirred in leftover grilled chicken, guacamole, salsa, lime juice, cilantro, chopped peppers, grape tomatoes, and onion. When I served it, I topped each portion with shredded cheddar, crushed tortilla chips, and more salsa.

Overall, I'd say it was a pretty good salad for something that started out as a box mix, but I think it could have benefited from the addition of black beans and corn.

01 July 2015

Peanut Butter Ice Cream Sandwich Cake, Woo-Hoo!

My parents came up over the weekend to help us out with a pesky backyard DIY project well beyond our skillset -- seriously, decades on and we are still not that good at adulting -- so we had a picnic, too, because that's just about the only payment my parents will accept. Food and booze and gossip. Okay, my parents are pretty awesome.

Of course, I garnished it with peanuts and whipped cream!

Anyway, I wanted to make something fancy-looking, but not necessarily complicated, and I hit the jackpot with Kraft's Chocolate-Peanut Butter Ice Cream Sandwich Cake.

It's dead easy to assemble -- layers of pudding mix and peanut butter combined with whipped topping used to paste together layers of ice cream sandwiches and then the whole thing is frosted with more peanut butter and whipped topping. It looks really pretty when assembled and tastes so fine. Everyone seemed to think it tasted like a Snickers bar, which I found rather amusing, and I'm tempted to make a proper Snickers version next with caramel syrup and shizzle.

Ice cream sandwich cake, assemble!

Wordless Wednesday: Grumpy Peahen

Why so grumpy, peahen?! I actually prefer your colors to those of your strutting mate.