18 April 2018

Wordless Wednesday: Succulents

Euphorbia obesa, a succulent also known as "baseball plant," on display at the
Connecticut Cactus & Succulent Society's annual show.

12 April 2018

#ImprovCooking: Asparagus & Cream

I've made Betty Crocker's "Baked Vegetable Risotto" several times now and it is always uniformly delicious. Pairs really well with grilled salmon or chicken -- just add a green salad and a bottle of wine and you have a meal that seems rather fancy without being a giant time-sink.

Of course, being me, I couldn't leave well enough alone, and decided to try it with asparagus and cream for this month's Improv Cooking Challenge. I used very thin stalks of tender young asparagus in order to keep the cooking time the same as the original recipe. If you have thicker stalks, you might want to blanch the asparagus first -- much depends on how firm you prefer cooked asparagus. The Husband likes very tender asparagus, so that's what I aimed for.



Asparagus & Mushroom Oven-Baked Risotto

Yield: 4-6 as a side dish

Ingredients

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 oz chopped sweet onion
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 8 oz sliced mushrooms
  • 1 tsp salt-free Italian seasoning blend
  • 1 cup uncooked Arborio rice
  • 14.5 oz low-sodium fat-free chicken broth
  • ½ pint container heavy cream
  • 10 oz very thin stalks tender young asparagus, trimmed & chopped into ⅓-inch pieces (leave tips whole for max prettiness)
  • 10 cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
  • 4 oz shredded Italian cheese blend

Instructions

  1. Heat oven to 400°F. Heat olive oil in 2 1/2-quart French/Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, mushrooms, and seasoning bend. Cook 3 to 5 minutes over medium heat, stirring frequently, until mushrooms start to soften.
  2. Add rice. Cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add broth and cream; heat to boiling.
  3. Cover pan. Transfer to oven. Bake 15 minutes.
  4. Stir in asparagus, cherry tomatoes, and half of the cheese. Cover; bake 10 to 15 minutes longer or until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender. Stir in remaining half of cheese and serve.


The #ImprovCookingChallenge is a monthly blogging event where two ingredients are assigned to a month. Bloggers can make any recipe they like as long as it features the two ingredients. If you are a blogger and would like to join us, please visit our Facebook page.You can also read more about the event on our our home page.

If you’d like to see previous creations, check out our Pinterest board.



11 April 2018

Wordless Wednesday: Stray Iris

The chipmunks have been rearranging my spring bulbs, again. This stray dwarf iris, 'Katharine Hodgkin,' has popped up under a blueberry bush.

04 April 2018

Wordless Wednesday: Crocuses in Snow

Purple crocuses undaunted by a little April snow.

26 March 2018

The Queen of Ieflaria


Princess Esofi has made the long journey to Ieflaria to wed Crown Prince Albion, someone she has been betrothed to since childhood. Although they have never met, they have exchanged many letters, and Esofi is looking forward to her marriage … or, rather, was. The prince has died, leaving Esofi and Ieflaria in precarious positions. Esofi does not want to return to her homeland (from my reading it seemed almost as if she couldn't) and Ieflaria doesn't want her to go, as they really need the magic she brought to fight off the dragons pillaging the countryside.

Esofi needs to marry someone royal to stay in Ieflaria. Someone like Adale, Albion's sister. And that would be an excellent solution to everyone's problems … except Adale never expected to be the heir, is completely freaked out by the idea, and is pretty set on doing a runner. As an alternative to Adele, there are always the Terrible Cousins ... except, well, they're terrible.

Let me just be honest with your here -- I preordered The Queen of Ieflaria because Twitter promised me poofy dresses, fire-breathing dragons, adorable kittens, and girls kissing girls.

It did not lie.

I liked Adale and Esofi -- both very different characters, but each interesting and compellingly-written. Their romance grew slowly from an initial tentative liking into something tender and sweet and rooted. They were so cute together. Every scene with just the two of them getting to know each other left me grinning like a goof and wishing for more. Indeed, I would have been perfectly content if the entire novel had just been a series of scenes in which Adale and Esofi exchange amusing banter while wearing fabulous clothes.

I do wish the secondary characters were a bit more fleshed out. Most were very one-note -- for example, Lady Mireille was very snotty, "Lady Lisette" was very sneaky, and Adele's friends simply seemed like a mass of drunken puppies. I also felt the world-building was a bit uneven -- sometimes Esofi's interior monologue felt very infodump-y and other times I felt I was being tortured with hints of Things That Might Be Important. But, hey, The Queen of Ieflaria is both a debut novel and the first in a series -- I expect the world-building will improve as Calvin goes on and concepts/subplots that are unclear will become crystal.

Ultimately, while I feel The Queen of Ieflaria does need a bit more polish, it was still an extremely enjoyable read. I look forward to reading the rest of the series, Tales of Inthya, when they are released. The second book, Daughter of the Sun, will be out in November and I hope it contains more floofy dresses and even more kissing.

The Queen of Ieflaria by Effie Calvin. NineStar Press, 2018. Kindle edition.

24 March 2018

Special Delivery From Taste of Home: Winter 2018

The Winter 2018 Special Delivery From Taste of Home subscription box arrived around the holidays and I was just too busy to deal with it so I did what I always do -- stuffed it in the back of the coat closet until there was time to appreciate it properly!


Excuses, excuses. What's in the box?

Now Designs Planta Bowl Cover (Not shown in photo, because in use) -- Eco-friendly cotton shower cap for your bowls. I scoffed when I first saw this -- my storage bowls all have lids. Why would I need this? And then, the very same day, I made a cookie dough that needed to be chilled for three hours and this cotton cap covered my KitchenAid stand mixer's bowl perfectly and I've been using it ever since. These appear to be sold in sets of two ($15.00 from Now and $14.95 from Amazon), so I'm a little sore I only received one.

Oxo Good Grips Vegetable Brush -- I will confess I've never owned a vegetable brush before. When I've need to scrub a particularly dirty vegetable, I've just broken out the nail brush and gone to town. This brush has very firm bristles and is about the size of a computer mouse. I like that the body is nonslip and that the entire thing is dishwasher safe. I would never have bought it for myself, but now that I have it I will retire the nailbrush to the bathroom where it belongs. Retails for $4.99 on the OXO site and Amazon.

Chef'n Looseleaf Kale & Greens Stripper -- Okay. So. My mom gave me one of these for Christmas and it's excellent at what it does. I know it looks gimmicky as all get out, but it works. I've used it on kale, turnip greens, and basil. Retails for $7.99 on the Chef'n site and $7.95 on Amazon.

Cherchies Pasta e Fagioli Soup Mix -- This seems to be the older version of the soup currently offered on Cherchies' site. This soup requires I rinse and soak the beans first, whereas the new quick-cooking version for sale does not. The ingredients seem pretty standard and I will make this soup because cold weather = soup, but I really wish it had slow cooker instructions.

Lodge Mini Magnetic Trivet -- Dishwasher safe, silicone and rare-earth round magnetic trivet that can protect countertops and tables from pot bottoms heated up to 450°F. This trivet fits all my Le Creuset cookware, including my oval 3⅓ quart Dutch oven, round 7¼ quart Dutch oven, and Signature 10¼" skillet. It works well and I would buy another. Retails for $10 on the Lodge site and $6.51 on Amazon.

DollarDays Inspirational Wall Plaque -- Small (8.625" x 2.75") painted wooden plaque that says "FAMILY, may this home be filled with love and laughter." I have no strong feeling for or against this time. It's just ... ehh. Price per unit, according to DollarDays, is $1.40.

Taste of Home Comfort Food Makeovers -- A collection of lightened-up "family favorite" recipes, including appetizers and sweets as well as main dishes. I haven't made anything from it yet, but I have (as usual) studded the book with sticky notes and I'll probably end up making the "Pineapple Oatmeal" before the month is out. This is a 2015 cookbook currently retailing on Amazon for $12.23 and on the Shop Taste of Home Store for $12.99.

$10 Coupon for the Shop Taste of Home Store -- I ended up purchasing Taste of Home 100 Family Meals and Taste of Home Bake Shop Favorites for $13.83, including shipping. These are cookbooks I've borrowed from my library in the past and felt it was worth having copies of my own. So, yes, the coupon is good value.

Special Delivery from Taste of Home Recipe Cards -- Six cards, all focused on winter comfort foods. So far, I've made the "Warm Tasty Greens With Garlic" (used my Chef'n greens stripper, yo) and the "Pinwheel Steak Pot Pie." I enjoyed making both recipes and The Husband definitely enjoyed eating the pot pie.

While I have been impressed by the quality of the revamped TOH subscription box service and enjoyed finding a new box of surprises on my doorstep every few months, I've decided it's time to call it quits. I have, frankly, too much stuff and don't need more. Cancelling was very easy -- I exchanged a few emails with Reader's Digest Customer Service and that was it. The end.

Read about my experiences with Special Delivery and its precursor, Taste the Seasons.

21 March 2018

Wordless Wednesday: Orchids



Two of the thousand orchids on display at the Nutmeg State Orchid Society's annual show and sale last weekend.

17 March 2018

Cookbook Club: Mediterranean Flavors

March's library cookbook theme was Mediterranean flavors -- dishes from Italy, Spain, Turkey, Greece, and such. I thought this was a broad enough topic that cooks who wanted to push the boat out and try something new -- like a Turkish dish -- could, while those who wanted to play it "safe" with more "common" cuisines like Greek and Italian, could as well. And that's pretty much what happened! In addition to a slew of delicious Italian dishes, we also had succulent buttered apricots with walnuts from Turkey and savory pan-fried chorizo in cider from Spain.


And what did I make? "Classic Hummus" from America's Test Kitchen's Complete Mediterranean Cookbook! Hummus is one of those things I disliked for years and then, abruptly, changed my mind about and now can't get enough of. I've often thought about making my own hummus, but 1) tahini is expensive and 2) I am lazy.

But I actually had tahini in the fridge (leftover from September's beet hummus) and there are always chickpeas in the cupboard so ... hummus! Who knew it could be so easy? The most persnickety part was during prep when I had to mix the lemon juice with water in one bowl and the olive oil with tahini in another. I don't understand why I couldn't just whack everything into the food processor and give it a whirl, but who am I to question the gods? Anyway, this is really good hummus -- smooth, creamy, and garlicky with a subtle lemon tang -- that I wouldn't want to mess with it.

I like this hummus so much that I've made it twice since the March meeting! It's so easy & inexpensive (yes, tahini is $$ upfront, but a jar lasts a long time) and there are enough recipe variations provided that I think I shall be happy making it for quite a long time.


Mind you, I did not intend to bring hummus! I intended to bring the lemony "Olive Oil-Yogurt Cake!" Tuesday was a snow day, so I thought I'd try the bundt cake out on The Husband and, if it worked well, I'd bring it to the meeting. Alas, it worked too well! The cake was so delicious, there was no way The Husband was going to let me part with it (admittedly, I was also loathe to give it up), but I didn't have quite enough time to bake another. So ... hummus!

But this cake. So tender. So moist. So lemony. And easy! Definitely going to bake another one soon. This was the first time I'd ever baked with olive oil and I so pleased with the experience that I went and borrowed Lisa Sheldon's Olive Oil Baking: Heart-Healthy Recipes That Increase Good cholesterol & Reduce Saturated Fats through my library system.


While I've told myself I ought to dial it back on Amazon purchases this year (Prime is the devil), I must admit I ended up purchasing a copy of America's Test Kitchen's Complete Mediterranean Cookbook. In addition to the hummus and the bundt cake, there were simply so many other recipes I wanted to try ("Braised Oxtails with White Beans, Tomatoes, and Aleppo Pepper," you're next!) that it seemed better to own a copy than keep the library's out on near permanent loan.

Unsurprisingly, I own quite a few ATK cookbooks and am very well aware there tends to be overlap between books, but I did not find the "Classic Hummus" recipe repeated in any other books. There are hummus recipes, certainly, but not that one. The recipe for "Olive Oil-Yogurt Cake," however, can also be found in The Perfect Cake (which I don't own, but my library does and I am, of course, on hold for).

12 March 2018

The Lark


Furrowed Middlebrow, a new imprint for Dean Street Press, as reprinted a slew of fabulous works by neglected, now lesser-known British women novelists and memoirists. These books largely describe women's lives and culture in early 20th century Britain and probably feel out of fashion for being too "domestic," but as this is exactly the kind of fiction I eat up with a spoon, I am over the moon.

After downloading five Furrowed Middlebrow releases to my Kindle, I decided to start with Nesbit's The Lark. I mean? How could I not? 1919, two capable young women recently from the school room discover their guardian has lost all their money and then done a bunk, leaving them with a country cottage and a wee bit of money to get buy on... it sounded completely charming and fun. A lark, indeed.

And it was. Jane and Lucilla Quested were charming, embraceable characters who had a grand little adventure as genteel business women before finding love and settling down to become good wives and mothers. They engaged with a patchwork of interesting characters taken from varied classes and backgrounds and the entire thing read as a cheerful, "can do" slice of life.

Be warned -- The Lark was by no means a realistic treatment of the economic difficulties faced by single, genteelly impoverished young women in the aftermath of WWI. However, it was a kind, optimistic book in which even the meanest characters were not so very mean and everything worked out well in the end. In other words, precisely what I needed to reading on a dreary March day in 2018.

If you enjoy Montgomery's The Blue Castle or Lovelace's later Betsy-Tacy books, I think The Lark will appeal to you as they all share a similar spirit and time.

I always thought of Edith Nesbit as a children's author -- Five Children & It, The Railway Children, etc -- but it turns out she wrote quite a few novels for adults and I look forward to reading more of them. Middlebrow has only reprinted this one, but others (The Red House, for example) are available for Kindle.

The Lark by Edith Nesbit. Dean Street Press, 2017.

08 March 2018

Baking With Coffee Flour

When last I ordered from Nuts.com, I threw a bag off coffee flour in my cart because ... I don't know ... it sounded interesting. I'd been doing a lot of baking with chocolate and wondered if adding coffee flour to a chocolate cake or whathaveyou recipe would enhance the chocolate flavor the way adding brewed coffee would. But then I stopped baking -- my culinary life is all fits and starts these days -- and the flour languished in the baking cupboard.

I know. You're wondering what the heck coffee flour is, right? What would you do with it? Why would you want it?

Coffee flour is a food with a mission. Every year, billions of pounds of coffee fruit are discarded as a byproduct of coffee production. Instead of leaving the fruit to rot as waste, coffee flour was created to convert the leftover fruit into a tasty, nutritious flour that can be used for baking, cooking and making beverages. High in fiber, protein, and antioxidants, coffee flour is a non-GMO food that is naturally gluten-free. Not only is our coffee flour a perfectly versatile ingredient, it also helps create jobs for farmers and protect the environment.

It's feel-good flour.

But, how do you bake with it? Nuts.com says you can use 30% coffee flour in place of all-purpose or gluten-free flours in your recipes, but other sources say 10, 15, or 25%. I would guess start with the smallest amount and increase if successful?

I have not yet been brave enough to try using it in any of my favorite chocolaty recipes (I just feel, since it's a coffee byproduct, it should be paired with chocolate even though I know it doesn't need to be), but I have tried a two recipes specifically formulated to use coffee flour and had good results.


The first recipe I tried was "Coffee-Flour Chocolate Chip Cookies" from the February 2017 issue of the print magazine Rodale's Organic Life. I made the recipe exactly as written, going with weighted measures where provided, and ended up with 41 extremely yumptious cookies. Neither The Husband nor I enjoy coffee or coffee-flavored things, but these cookies do not taste at all coffee-like!

They are dark cookies, yes, with a hint of dates and a slight bitterness that put me more in mind of black tea tannins than coffee. That dark, slight bitterness worked well, though, balancing the general sweetness of the cookie and the insipidness of the milk chocolate morsels I used (forgot I was out of semisweet).

They have crisp-but-yielding exteriors with soft, almost cake-like interiors, and melt in the mouth. Definitely a cookie I'd make again. (I brought a third of the batch to work and everyone liked the cookies so much that I brought in another third the next day ... and The Husband was very unhappy about that so, yeah, it's a good cookie).


For my second attempt at baking with coffee flour, I used Nuts.com gluten-free "Chocolate Coffee Flour Muffins Recipe" recipe one snowy afternoon as I had all the ingredients on hand already. While this was my first time baking gluten-free, the Nuts.com recipe was simple with straight-forward instructions and I had no trouble preparing it. The only change I made to the recipe was to use Hersheys Special Dark chocolate cocoa, because that's all I had on hand.

The muffins baked up beautifully -- light and fluffy with a delicate crumb (perhaps more cupcake than muffin?). Perhaps a little dry, but I've certainly had much worse. The Husband enjoyed his muffins with a cup of tea and, frankly, that's always a good pairing. Flavor-wise, the muffins are a very dark chocolate with that slight, bitter coffee flour edge.


When I portioned the batter out into the muffin cups, I thought the batter smelled a lot like a Bounty/Mounds bar and, if I made this recipe again, I would top the muffins with shredded coconut instead of hazelnuts and, maybe, also add a little coconut extract to the batter.

I'll probably bake the CoffeeFlour® "Coffee Cherry Flour Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars" next, because everyone likes chocolate chip cookie bars. I really want to bake the "Coffee Cherry Flour Chocolate Zucchini Bread," but zucchini season is months away and it seems wrong to buy out-of-season zucchini!

07 March 2018

Wordless Wednesday: Snowy Kitty

A very snowy Catzilla has had enough of this cold, wet nonsense & would like to come inside & get toweled off (after a good chase around the living room).

05 March 2018

Binti


Binti, a young Himba woman of prodigious mathematical talents, has been admitted on full scholarship to the most prestigious university in the galaxy. But the Himba people do not leave home. Nor do they question not leaving it. It is simply the way of things. But Binti is so talented and full of dreams, drive, desire that she cannot help but sneak away at night, breaking with her people forever. This is not a decision Binti makes lightly and the novel deftly portrays -- in ways that felt very real to this reader -- the the emotional and physical pain she experiences throughout her adventure because of this decision.

Aboard the living, organic starship taking students to the university, Binti manages to find her footing and even begins to form friendships ... and then the ship is attacked by angry, jellyfish-like aliens and massive amounts of carnage ensues. What originally seems like a compelling story about a plucky “backwater” girl out to follow her dreams becomes a rollicking young adult space adventure full of feels.

Indeed, I have so many feelings about Binti -- both the novella and the titular character -- but I don’t know how to write about either without spoiling the novella for you. Suffice to say, I found Binti to be an extremely enjoyable and thought-provoking read. I can easily see why Binti won both the 2016 Hugo and 2015 Nebula for Best Novella and I cannot wait to read the rest of the books in the trilogy.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. Tor, 2015.

01 March 2018

Green Bean "Shakshouka"

I've been enamored with the idea of shakshouka (also spelled shakshuka) -- eggs poached in a sauce of tomatoes, peppers, onions, and spices -- for a while now and so here is my completely off the cuff "oh my cake, why did I buy so many green beans?!" take on it. I ate this as a late breakfast, but it would be equally delicious any time of the day.


Green Bean "Shakshouka"

Yield: 2

Ingredients

  • 4 ounces green beans, trimmed & chopped small
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 small onion, thinly sliced
  • Sea salt & coarsely ground black pepper, to taste
  • Cracked rosemary, to taste
  • 14.5 oz can fire-roasted tomatoes (used crushed tomatoes for a saucier dish)
  • 2 large eggs
  • Crumbled goat or feta cheese, as desired for topping

Instructions

  1. Heat olive oil in heavy skillet over medium heat. Add sliced onions and cook until tender and fragrant. Stir in green beans and tomatoes. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until green beans are tender, approximately 8 minutes. Season, stir, and then make a well in the middle.
  2. Crack eggs into the well, cover, turn heat down to low, and let cook until egg whites are set and egg yolks are as you like them -- I went with 5 minute for firm whites and runny yolks.
  3. Adjust seasonings, if needed. Sprinkle with crumbled goat cheese and serve.
This was really easy to throw together and quite delicious -- very savory, rich with tomato and yolk. Admittedly, green beans and tomatoes are one of my favorite combinations, so I'm probably a bit biased. I might try for a spicy version next time, by eliminating the rosemary and stirring in a dollop of Thai chili paste.

22 February 2018

Sick Day Slow Cooker Chicken Noodle Soup

Various winter-time illnesses have been rampaging through work and it is no surprise that I have finally succumbed to one of them. I blame my compromised immune system on a dip in my generally high stress/anxiety level -- my body took a risk and unbent a little from its constant state of vigilance against everything that could go wrong and **BAM** sickness came upon me.

So I made soup. Nothing as comforting as a bowl of chicken noodle soup when I'm feeling sick, after all. While I had no energy for anything fancy, I've made soups similar to this before -- they're very dump and go (in this case, "go" meant back to bed) and do the job of filling my tummy with something hot and nourishing.


I used boneless thighs in this soup, because they were already in the fridge and it was either shift them to the freezer or cook them. You could use boneless breasts, although I don't find them as flavorful as thighs and they tend to be more expensive, anyway. Also, obviously, you could use fresh aromatics -- using dried simply saved me time and energy.


Slow Cooker Chicken Noodle Soup

Yield:4 generous bowlfuls

Ingredients

  • 1 lb boneless skinless chicken thighs
  • 1 cup chopped peeled carrots
  • 1 Tbsp onion flakes
  • 2 Tbsp celery flakes
  • 1 Tbsp dehydrated garlic
  • 2 tsp salt-free Italian seasoning blend
  • 4 cups low-sodium chicken broth (1 wax carton)
  • 6 oz egg noodles
  • Sea salt & coarsely ground pepper, as desird

Instructions

  1. Add the chicken, carrots, onion, celery, seasonings, broth, salt, and pepper to slow cooker insert. Cover.
  2. Cook on Low heat setting 4 to 5 hours or until chicken is tender.
  3. Shred chicken. Add egg noodles to slow cooker and stir well.
    Cook 1 hour longer.
  4. Stir well. Adjust seasonings as necessary and serve.

21 February 2018

Wordless Wednesday: Pay Attention to Me, Human

Little enjoys wrapping himself around my writing hand, thereby monopolizing my attention.

16 February 2018

Cookbook Club: Sweet & Savory Pies

February's cookbook club theme was all things pie -- berry, cream, whoopie, hand, slab, cottage, you name it. I didn't doubt my club members would bring a fabulous assortment of sweet pies to our meeting, so I decided to go savory with "Slow-Cooked Shepherd's Pie" (let us not get into the cottage vs shepherd or gravy vs tomato sauce debates) from Taste of Home Casseroles, Slow Cooker, & Soups.


It's a very straight forward recipe and I followed it exactly as written both times I made it. Yes, both. First I tried it out on The Husband last weekend -- being British, he thinks he knows a thing or two about shepherd's pie -- and we both enjoyed it very much. I'll definitely be adding this cozy and comforting dish to my cold weather slow cooker repertoire.

The second time I made this shepherd's pie, I treated it as a make ahead dish. I prepared it through Step 3 the day before cookbook club, assembled the meat and potato layers in the slow cooker insert and refrigerated it overnight, then took it to work and plugged it in the next afternoon. And, as expected, the pie worked out really well as a make ahead dish.

Assembled through Step 3 & ready to go, with parsley and cheese for the finishing touch.

Luckily, my 3½ quart Cuisinart slow cooker fits perfectly in my old canvas tote bag.

I will revisit Taste of Home Casseroles, Slower Cooker, & Soups in April when I make the slow cooker "Chili & Cheese Crustless Quiche." (April's cookbook club theme is brinner and chili quiche seems very brinner-ish).

12 February 2018

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra, Volume 1: Aphra


Doctor Aphra has been scavenging ("recovering") artifacts from the Outer Rim and using her Archaeological Association accreditation to verify them (a kind of ethical whitewashing, it would seem) in order to sell them legally. Aphra's latest find could make her very rich except her father turns up, blackmailing her into going on a wacky adventure to find the Ordu Aspectu -- a Jedi splinter group thought to have been wiped out by the good/orthodox/winning Jedi waaay long time ago. Dads, amirite?

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra, Volume 1: Aphra collects issues 1-6 and appears to be set sometime between the films A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. This is Aphra's first standalone -- I understand she had been significant character in the Star Wars: Darth Vader series. I can certainly see why Aphra now has her own series -- she's saucy, space-faring Indiana Jones who shines too brightly to be anyone's sidekick. Less of a womanizer than Jones, true, but with even more unethical behavior. And Aphra has sarcastic murder-y droids. And a sexy space ship. And a Wookie copilot. Volume 1 was a rollicking adventure and I'm looking forward to Volume 2 ... in which, I hope, we will meet Captain Tolvan again! Phoawr.


Star Wars: Doctor Aphra, Volume 1: Aphra by Kieron Gillen, Kev Walker, et al. Marvel, 2017.

08 February 2018

#ImprovCooking: Steak & Potatoes

I don’t know about you, but I love all types of roasted vegetables. I feel quite strongly that roasting vegetables is one of the tastiest and easiest ways to prepare them and it's very much my go-to for weeknight cooking. Roasted potatoes are The Husband's favorite, but mushrooms, peppers, and onions are pretty popular with him, too.

When I set about drafting February's Improv Cooking recipe, I thought it best to stick to a combination of flavors I knew we would both like, because I'd also be cooking steak and -- while I believe in packing really nice work lunches for myself -- making steak just for myself seemed pretty mean.

Roasting green beans is a pretty new experience for me and I've found the haricot verts work best as they are thinner and more tender to start with. If you can't find haricot verts, you can use regular string beans but you'll probably want to blanch them first or bump up the overall roasting time if you don't want crunchy beans.

Obviously, YMMV as cooking times will vary depending upon the temperature of the steaks before grilling, the kind and thickness of the steaks, and the cooking temperature of the pan. Just keep an eye on your steaks and have your meat thermometer handy.



Steak With Roasted Vegetables

Yield: 2-4, depending on how famished you are

Ingredients

  • 8 oz small fingerling potatoes, halved lengthwise
  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded & cut into chunks
  • 1 orange bell pepper, seeded & cut into chunks
  • 4 oz mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 4 oz haricot verts (thin young green beans)
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled & thinly sliced
  • 2 1-inch thick 10 oz boneless rib eye steaks
  • Sea salt, as desired
  • Penzeys salt-free California Style Seasoned Pepper or similar, as desired

Instructions

  1. Allow steaks sit at room temperature for 30 minutes.
  2. Heat oven to 400°F. Line a half-sheet pan with foil.
  3. Place the potatoes, peppers, and mushrooms on the foil-lined half sheet pan, drizzle with oil, season as needed, toss, then roast for 20 mins.
  4. Add the beans and garlic, toss, then roast for another 10 mins.
  5. Meanwhile, pat the steaks dry with a paper towel and season generously.
  6. Heat a nonstick grill pan or skillet over medium high heat. Add steaks and grill 5 mins on one side.
  7. Turn steaks over and cook for 5 minutes more or until the steaks are between 130°F and 135°F for medium rare, or until done to your liking.
  8. Remove the steaks from the pan, tent with foil, and let rest for 5 minutes. Serve with the roasted vegetables.

The #ImprovCookingChallenge is a monthly blogging event where two ingredients are assigned to a month. Bloggers can make any recipe they like as long as it features the two ingredients. If you are a blogger and would like to join us, please visit our Facebook page.You can also read more about the event on our our home page.

If you’d like to see previous creations, check out our Pinterest board.





07 February 2018

Wordless Wednesday: Saint Urban of Langres

Polychrome wood statue of Saint Urban of Langres on display at the Wadsworth Atheneum.

05 February 2018

All Systems Red


When All Systems Red begins, a SecUnit (a weaponized Imitative Human Bot Unit specializing in security, not combat), is assigned to a group of survey team exploring a planet full of seemingly harmless fauna. The SecUnit, who refers to itself as Murderbot, thinks the team seems okay as far as humans go, but the assignment doesn’t ask much of it, so it spends a lot of time watching serials and ignoring commands from its governor module.

Prior to this assignment, you see, Murderbot had a really bad work experience, so it secretly hacked its governor module to become autonomous. That's probably a good thing, in the long run, as the stupid company that owns Murderbot is a great one for cutting corners, buying the cheapest components, and not concerning itself much with the safety of the people on the ground.

Unsuprisingly, everything goes to shit and Murderbot has to save the day while attempting to keep its autonomy secret.

At 149 pages, this novella is an absolute romp. I could not put All Systems Red down and chortled my way though most of it. There's a lot of action, some mystery, and a great deal of dry, dark humor packed between its covers. While the story movies quickly, the characters are well-rounded and interesting and the principle plot-line wraps up neatly and satisfyingly.

That said, All Systems Red is the first novella in The Murderbot Diaries, so if you need more MurderBot in your life, rejoice. And I am. Must. Have. More. Murderbot. And it's not just me loving these books. I shared All Systems Red with The Husband and he enjoyed it very much. He doesn't have a lot of time to read and reads more slowly than I, so short snarky books with immediately absorbing stories are a definite win.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells. Tor, 2017.

29 January 2018

Star Wars: The Screaming Citadel


Star Wars: The Screaming Citadel is a classic dark-and-stormy night kind of Gothic horror, but ... you know ... also very Star Wars. It's weird and delightful. Lots of witty banter, double and triple-crossing, lavish Bram Stoker's Dracula-esque clothes, symbiotes, snarky droids, and a possessed Wookies.

Skywalker, desperate to become the Jedi Knight he needs to be to beat Vader, teams up with the rogue archaeologist (and general bad 'un) Doctor Aphra. Aphra has an ancient Jedi crystal thingamajig in her possession that she cannot unlock, but she knows a very old, very bored alien queen who will ... if she's introduced to the right bit of interesting organic life. Skywalker's willing to be that bit (not at all understanding what it will cost him) to get the ancient Jedi crystal thingamajig unlocked. It's a win-win for everyone, right? Well, no. Not at all.


Star Wars: The Screaming Citadel is five-issue crossover between the main Star Wars and Star Wars: Doctor Aphra comic book series. Chronologically, it appears to be set sometime between the films A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. Do you need to have read the Doctor Aphra series for The Screaming Citadel to make sense? I don't think so. Your level of enjoyment may be increased, but enough of Aphra's backstory is provided by Skywalker & Co. that you get the gist of it. But maybe don't listen to me as I'm off to read Star Wars: Doctor Aphra, Volume One.

Star Wars: The Screaming Citadel by Kieron Gillen, Jason Aaron, et al. Marvel, 2017.

22 January 2018

Bryony & Roses


In Bryony & Roses, Bryony and her sisters have been forced to retire to a small cottage in the remote village of Lostfarthing on the outer edge of nowhere after the death of their father following a series of terrible investments. They have made friends in the village, found purpose in their new lives and are, at least for Bryony, more truly themselves than they ever were during their rich days in the city. (While they've definitely come down in the world, I saw them more as genteelly impoverished, like the Dashwood sisters, than truly poor).

Anyway, one day Bryony goes off to fetch some particularly hardy rutabaga seeds from a nearby village and she finds herself caught in a spring blizzard. Miles from home, disoriented and freezing, she stumbles upon an impossible manor house. In the manor house is ... well, you know. The Rose. The Beast. The Curse.

Bryony & Roses is a lovely, playful, and yet surprisingly dark retelling of the classic fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast. In the introduction, Kingfisher writes that she was inspired by Robin McKinley's Rose Daughter and, taken in its entirety, Mckinley's influence is clear. This is no bad thing -- McKinley’s Beauty and the Beast retellings, Beauty and Rose Daughter, remain two of my favorite fantasy novels. Indeed, Beauty was my very first fairy tale retelling and I’m always eager to find similar works.

The ending was, I thought, perfect and I loved the message it sent -- not that love conquers all or that love can turn a monster back into a prince, but simply: if you love someone, you love them for who they are not who they could be or were once upon a time.

Bryony & Roses by T. Kingfisher. Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2015.

18 January 2018

Exploring Food52 Vegan for Cookbook Club

January's library cookbook theme was veg*n -- vegetarian and/org vegan -- cooking. January is the time of year when many people embrace new lifestyle choices and I thought veg*n cooking might appeal as plant-based diets are very much on trend. Also, I wanted to push the boat out a bit and challenge my regular participants to venture (at least a little bit) outside their comfort zones.


In the lead-up to January's meeting, I made two recipes from Food52 Vegan: 60 Vegetable-Driven Recipes for Any Kitchen by Gena Hamshaw (Ten Speed Press, 2015). It's a beautifully-packaged introductory cookbook, full of tempting photos, uncomplicated recipes, and handy little "Vegan 101" tips. If you've used other Food52 cookbooks, you'll be familiar with the look and feel. As an omnivore who occasionally dabbles with veg*nism, I didn't find any of recipes "too weird" -- by which I mean I already owned the ingredients I needed or easily found them locally.

The first recipe I tried, "Banana Chia Pudding," was ... okay. It was an easy-to-assemble mixture of unsweetened almond milk, bananas, maple syrup, cinnamon, vanilla, salt, and chia. The flavor was good -- creamy, maple-y, sweet-but-not-too. Consistency-wise, I found the pudding a bit runny. In all the photos I have seen of chia pudding, it always looks thick -- like tapioca pudding -- but that's not how mine ever comse out. Could my seeds be duds? Is it possible to have old/nonreactive chia seeds?? Anyway, as I said, good flavor. Just a bit soupy.


The second recipe I tried, "Mexican Chocolate Date Truffles," was the dish I ended up presenting at the club meeting. I actually made the truffles the morning of the meeting and then, as they did not require refrigeration, left the truffles out on my desk until it was time to serve them. It took, maybe, 20 minutes to make the truffles and most of that time was just me trying, obsessively, to shape perfect orbs and then settling for orbish truffles.


While mine did not look quite as nice as the ones in the book, they were so easy to make that I know I will make the recipe variations -- oatmeal raisin, key lime, and lemon coconut -- at some point, too, just to see what they're like. The "Mexican chocolate" variation was very date-y and nutty with just a faint bloom of heat and, surprisingly, very little chocolate flavor. I'd used Hershey's Special Dark unsweetened cocoa powder and I think I should have gone for something more robust, like King Arthur Flour's Double Dutch Dark Cocoa. However, the cookbook club participants all enjoyed the truffles just as they were and there wasn't much in the way of leftovers!

15 January 2018

No Other Duke Will Do


After Anne Stuart’s Never Kiss a Rake, I knew I wanted a quiet, sensible romance. Something sweet and fun, centered on two people who talk to each other like sensible adults (with, yes, some quiet, gentle ribbing and flirtation thrown in for good measure), listen to each other, and fall in love in very real way. And that’s precisely what I found in Burrowes’ No Other Duke Will Do. No frustrating misunderstandings due to a lack of clear communication. No dark secrets. No masquerades.

I enjoyed the small domestic details of Elizabeth and Julian’s romance -- Elizabeth gave Julian the supportive and loving friendship he didn’t know he was missing while Julian showed Elizabeth how verrry good a good man could be. She mended his waistcoat, befriended his siblings, and helped sort out his runaway house party. He brought her flowers and pillows to increase her bookish comfort and generally showed her that she was both desired and beloved. It was all very sweet and nice.

Of course, there had to be some obstacle standing in the way of True Love. In this case, the obstacle was a thirty-thousand volume library which, while of little presumed value, had impoverished the dukedom to such a point it was impossible Julian should marry anyone anytime soon. There was also the so irritating (but probably completely correct) Lucas Sherbourne, who saw no point to the aristocracy and would have dearly loved to chop down Julian’s woods and put in a colliery to improve the local economy.

The whole "there’s nothing of value in this library!" schtick irritated me to know end. I was, like, really? How have you not had anyone who knows books in to value your collection? And then, of course, my suspicions re: value of books were proved correct and Sherbourne kind-of made friends with Julian (and, more importantly, Elizabeth’s sister Charlotte) and it was just a complete Happy Ever After. Hooray.

Books, kissing, friendship ... it’s all good.

No Other Duke Will Do is the third book in Burrowes’s Windham Brides series, but made perfect sense on its own. Yes, the scandal in Elizabeth’s past and the various relationships between characters would probably have been clearer had I read the preceding books, but I got the gist of it and that was enough for me. While I could go back and catch up with Megan and Anwen, I’m more likely to steam ahead and read Charlotte’s story in A Rogue of Her Own as I really want to see how Burrowes will turn Lucas Sherbourne into a romantic hero. He was such an ass in No Other Duke Will Do that my mind boggles at the very idea! (But, if any woman could bring him up to scratch, it would be Charlotte).

No Other Duke Will Do by Grace Burrowes. Forever/Hachette Book Group, 2017.

10 January 2018

Wordless Wednesday: Jigsaw Weather

Winter is for jigsaws & cocoa! "Remington the Horticulturist" from Buffalo Games' The Cats of Charles Wysocki series.

08 January 2018

Never Kiss a Rake


After the Russell sisters’ father dies in a carriage accident, whilst attempting to flee the country with embezzled funds, they find themselves friendless and in greatly reduced circumstances. Unwilling to accept their father’s presumed perfidy, Bryony -- the eldest sister -- decides to masquerade as a housekeeper in order to infiltrate the home of one of their father’s business partners and discover the truth.

Of course, the Earl of Kilmartyn quickly suspects his new housekeeper, Mrs. Greaves, is more than she appears to be and determines to get the truth from her. Also, to get up her skirts. Because this pox-marked, prim, and prickly woman is totally, inexplicably hot. Way hotter than his impossibly beautiful, but duplicitous blackmailing wife. It’s clear Bryony is a virgin, though, and Kilmartyn is a gentleman so he just can’t “fuck the hell out of her, hard and fast, as he desperately needed to do.” No, he has to woo her.

It’s a hard thing, being a gentleman of principles.

To me, there was no real romantic connection between Kilmartyn and Bryony -- he clearly wanted her and she clearly had feelings for him and they did have, apparently, really hot sex after he de-virgined her. But love? Eh.

And the ending ... well, it didn’t make a lot of sense. The villain -- who threatens Byrony with necrophilia and might have an interest in pederasty and, well, just needed a monocle and twirlable mustache to complete the whole over-the-top Evil Guy ensemble -- did not really explain who he was, why he was fucking Kilmartyn's wife, why he hated Kilmartyn, and why he killed Bryony’s father. It’s clear he did some of it because of a flippin’ country house, which is sheer bonkers when you realize the house would have come to him, anyway, when Bryony’s dad died of old age. But why he slept with Kilmartyn’s wife when he clearly hated and despised her, and why he hated Kilmartyn so much ... I don’t really know. Anyway, I’m sure he appears in the next two books -- starring the two younger Russell sisters and the other business partners -- and I’ll eventually learn his story in its entirety. Were I to read them.

But I don’t think I care to. In hindsight, I realize I would have preferred far less Upstairs shenanigans and more Downstairs adventures in housekeeping. Indeed, if someone would write me a fanfic about the romance between Mrs. Patmore Mrs. Harkins and Mr. Molesley Mr. Collins with some lavish descriptions of baking and general housewifery chucked in for good measure, I’d be over the moon.

Never Kiss a Rake by Anne Stuart. Montlake Romance, 2013.

03 January 2018

Wordless Wednesday: A Splash of Summer

It's bitterly cold & grim out. Happily, the gardening catalogs have begun arriving & my daydreams are full of soft summer days.