09 August 2018

Summery Bean & Chopped Vegetable Salad

This summer, my garden seems very reluctant to give me any tomatoes. So far, I've harvested a double handful when I'd usually be up to my eyeballs in delicious cherry and currant tomatoes by now. Garden tomatoes have very much become an supplementary rather than key ingredient in many salads and packed lunches.

This is a kind of "clear out the kitchen salad" which makes good use of stuff you probably already have hanging around. The corn is usually leftover roast corn, but thawed frozen or drained can will work just as well. If you don't have Penzeys Florida seasoning blend, use salt-free lemon-black pepper, garlic, and onion powder to taste.


Bean & Vegetable Salad

Yield: 8

Ingredients

  • ⅓ cup lime-infused olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp white wine vinegar
  • ½ Tbsp Penzeys Florida seasoning blend
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 Tbsp chopped cilantro
  • 15-oz can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 15-oz can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 8 cherry tomatoes, quartered
  • 1 cup corn
  • 1 cup diced seeded cucumber
  • 2 scallions, sliced
  • ½ cup red bell pepper, diced

Instructions

  1. In a medium bowl, whisk together olive oil, vinegar, seasoning blend, garlic, and cilantro. Set aside.
  2. In a large bowl, combine remaining ingredients. Pour dressing over salad and toss until evenly coated.
  3. For best results cover and refrigerate overnight. Allow to come to room temperature before serving. Adjust seasoning as needed.

01 August 2018

Wordless Wednesday: Black-eyed Susans

Black-eyed Susan, the best friend of many a lazy gardener.

25 July 2018

Wordless Wednesday: Tomato Season

The cherry tomatoes are beginning to ripen! Hooray, for delicious red orbs.

22 July 2018

Sunday (Not) in the Garden

It rained most of today so I didn't get out in the garden as planned. Yesterday, I pulled the snap peas as they had just about reached their end and I needed a spot to relocate the utterly unhappy chard. Things have not going well at all for the chard, trapped as they have been in the sprawl of Brussels sprouts. This is my first year growing sprouts and I was not sure what to expect so I did not allocate enough space for them and they've taken over, nearly smothering the chard. They are at least growing the way they're supposed to, I think, and mini cabbages are slowly forming along the stalks.


Anyway, the chard have been dug up, replanted, fertilized, and watered. Hopefully all will go well with them from now on and I will soon be inundated with chard ... but not too soon as it's begun to appear in my weekly CSA share and there's a definite limit to just how much chard I can cope with before I make some regrettable smoothies. The limit is two. Two bunches in one week. More than that and I get a little chard crazy.

The cucumbers are in fine fiddle and are, I think, trying to put me to shame. Or actively going to war against me. "Oh, you human, you poopooed us. Dismissed us as weak and doomed to fail and yet here we are burying you in the fruits of our vines." At the moment, my crisper drawer is 70% cucumber and I have resorted to making pitchers of posh cucumber-lemon spa water.

Speaking of things I can't keep a handle on, the basil have bolted and are covered in beautiful white flowers. I feel I should be a bit cross with myself for not reining them in when I could, but they look so lovely in bloom and the bees love it. Who am I to thwart the happiness of bees?


19 July 2018

Not-Too-Creamy Coleslaw

Late last week, Dad texted me to say he'd finally made up his mind about what he'd like for Father's Day. Yes, I know Father's Day was in June and you're all scratching your heads about why I'm talking about Father's Day picnics now. Well, Dad's birthday is the week before FD so we move one or the other so he still gets two separate, special days. The same happens with Mom's birthday and Mother's Day. Anyway, he wanted to come up for a picnic of burgers and salads. Easy enough, I thought, but which salads would he like? Oh, any kind. Whatever I liked. Cook's choice.

So. I made potato salad, bean salad, and coleslaw. Unlike potato and bean salad, while I've eaten a lot of slaw in my life, I don't have a lot of experience making it. When I do, I usually fiddle with Mom's recipe until I have something that seems about right ...


Not-too-creamy coleslaw

Yield: 8

Ingredients

  • 14-oz bag coleslaw mix
  • ½ cup chopped red bell pepper
  • 2 scallions, chopped
  • ½ cup mayonnaise
  • 2 Tbsp white vinegar
  • ½ Tbsp white sugar
  • ½ tsp celery seed
  • ½ tsp dried dill
  • ¼ tsp ground black pepper
  • ½ tsp sea salt

Instructions

  1. In a large bowl, combine coleslaw mix, bell pepper, and scallion.
  2. In a smaller bowl, whisk together remaining ingredients.
  3. Pour mayonnaise mixture over coleslaw mix and stir until combine.
  4. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Adjust seasonings as desired before serving.

Everyone (Dad most importantly) seemed to like this coleslaw. It was very colorful with good flavor -- tangy and herby, with just the right amount of creaminess and crunch. While we initially ate it as a side dish, it later made a very good burger topping.

15 July 2018

Sunday in the Garden

This week the flower garden is looking particularly good. Flowers are blooming all through the garden, and the colors are charming. Below is a picture of one of my favorite, Geranium "Rozanne," which I have planted in large swaths along the front of the house. Rozanne blooms unflaggingly June through September, always spreading but never sprawling, and just about the time the flowers stop in the fall, the leaves tint a lovely bronzy red. Also, pollinators love it.


Speaking of plants pollinators love, the butterfly weed is also doing well this summer. My mother gave me an envelope of dried butterfly weed seed pods a few years ago and I scattered the seeds in the narrow strip of soil between the garage and the front path lat that fall, not really expecting much, but figuring it couldn't do any harm. Every spring since, a plant has sprung up ... only to succumb to a terrible aphid infestation. Except this year. This year, everything is good. I am suspicious of my luck and have my spray bottle of insecticidal soap on hand, just in case.


Many of the drumstick allium I planted in 2014 have somehow migrated to the opposite end of the garden (I blame ambitious, excavating chipmunks), but are doing so well in their new home I am not inclined to move them back. Also, I am lazy.

I'm not overly keen on ornamental alliums, but drumstick alliums with their egg-shaped green and burgundy umbels are simply fetching. Mine are just on the edge of blooming, but will still be handsome even when overblown and blowsy from the the August sun.







11 July 2018

Wordless Wednesday: Cucumbers!

Wee prickly baby cucumbers growing from the female blooms. If all goes well,
I'll have So. Many. Cucumbers.

08 July 2018

Sunday in the Garden

I hadn't planned on growing cucumbers this year as I have never had any luck with them. It is simply less painful to purchase cucumbers at the farmers market than to fret over the plants as they, inevitably, succumb to powdery mildew or hungry critters. But then I took a vegetable gardening workshop which came with a voucher for a free vegetable seedling cell pack and I thought "What the heck! I'll get some cucumbers! If they die, they die and become compost to feed next year's garden." And that is how three bush pickling cucumber seedlings came to be in my vegetable bed.


Last weekend, while weeding the vegetable beds, I took a good look at the cucumber plants and was pleased to see they were covered in blossoms and tiny cucumbers. The cucumbers have, like most of the garden, positively thrived under my policy of benign neglect. I reckoned that, if everything went well, I'd have cucumbers in another week or so.

Well, today I went out to harvest more peas and discovered not one or two, but five harvest ready cucumbers! The first I saw was just hanging off the edge of the raised bed, playing it cool. I tucked the vine back up into the bed (to avoid death by lawnmower) and then went through the rest of the bed, carefully parting the leaves, until I was sure I'd found all the cucumbers that were ready for harvest.


While I've saved four cucumbers for sandwiches and salads, I immediately rinsed and ate one with a generous sprinkle of brick red Hawaiian-style sea salt. It was everything a cucumber should be. Hooray.

05 July 2018

Snap Pea, Green Bean, & Radish Salad

Today, I breakfasted on peas. Stood in the vegetable garden, splitting the monstrous snap pea pods open with my thumb, and then gobbled up all the green peas like so much candy. The trouble with snap peas is that there are always a few that manage to hide from me and grow monstrously large. Large pea pods are bad, I feel, because the pods have gone hard and are not pleasant to eat even when cooked.

In addition to the monstrous peas, I picked a bowlful of regular-sized snap peas and another of bush green beans. This week's CSA share included an overly generous bunch of radishes I didn't quite know what to do with, so I decided to make a salad of the three.



Snap Pea, Green Bean, & Radish Salad

Yield: 4

Ingredients

  • ½ lb green beans, trimmed
  • ½ lb sugar snap peas, trimmed
  • 6 large radishes, halved & thinly sliced
  • 2 Tbsp garlic-infused white balsamic vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp Penzeys Sunny Paris (or similar salt-free blend)
  • Sea salt & coarsely ground black pepper, as desired

Instructions

  1. In a large saucepan, bring two cups of water to a boil. Add beans, cover pan, reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 2 minutes.
  2. Add sugar snap peas, cover, and continue to simmer until beans and peas are crisp-tender, about 2 minutes more.
  3. Fill a large bowl with ice water. Drain vegetables and plunge them into the ice water bath. Remove and pat dry.
  4. In a large serving bowl, whisk together vinegar and seasoning blend. Add beans, peas, and radishes to the serving bowl and toss to coat. Season with salt and peppers, as desired. Serve immediately.

We ate this with grilled steaks and I thought it was quite tasty, but The Husband found the beans too firm and was just generally displeased with the entire combination of vegetables and flavors. As I have been known to eat leftover green beans straight from the fridge, you should probably take my opinion with a grain of salt.

Also, be aware this salad will not keep. I made enough salad for four, expecting to take the leftovers for lunch, but the salad was decidedly the worse for wear for having been refrigerated.

04 July 2018

Wordless Wednesday: Brussels Sprouts

Growing Brussels Sprouts for the first time. Currently, look like they're trying out for a Georgia O'Keeffe painting.

01 July 2018

Sunday in the Garden

This Sunday dawned hot with higher temperatures to come so I was out gardening at six, well supervised by Little Dude. He may be old and increasingly frail, but he still likes to observe the garden doings from his favorite outdoor chair cushion. If he weren't there, keeping and eye on me, who knows what mischief I might get up to! I mean, the last time he wasn't there to supervise the operation a whole swath of anise hyssop disappeared and that was not acceptable.


After a week or so of summery weather, the raised vegetable beds are looking dramatically unkempt. Everything is tall and shaggy with growth. Especially the weeds. Always, the weeds. Admittedly, I am bad at keeping up with the weeds, mainly because I can easily think of many more interesting/fun things to do than weed ... and then I go and do them. (The thing is, though, once I do start weeding, I actually enjoy it. It is so satisfying. It's just the getting started part which is a problem).


I harvested a serving bowl's worth of snap peas and another of bush beans, plus a large bundle of chard. The basil should probably have been cut back, because it's getting ready to bolt, but the sun was already warming the back of my neck by the time I came to that section of the vegetable beds and I felt it was better to retreat to the coolness of the kitchen.


28 June 2018

Cucumber & Tomato Salad With Cheese & Olives

I often serve a simple chopped cucumber and tomato salad as my go-to weeknight side dish, but that can, admittedly, get a little samey-samey from week to week. Happily, the addition of a little fresh soft cheese and olives is a great way to dress it up and make it taste more interesting.

The recipe listed below is just an example. All of the amounts are quite approximate and should be adjusted to suit your own taste/appetite. I seed the tomatoes if I'm using a full-sized one, because otherwise the salad can be bit, well, seedy. However, I don't bother to peel or seed the cucumber because I prefer the added texture. As always, feel free to do your own thing.

Yes, those are fish sticks in the background. No, I have no shame. They were delicious.


Cucumber & Tomato Salad With Cheese & Olives

Yield: 2

Ingredients

  • 4 oz chopped tomatoes
  • 5 oz chopped cucumber
  • 3 oz crumbled feta cheese or fresh goat cheese or perlini mozzarella
  • 1½ oz chopped kalamata olives
  • 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons garlic-infused olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon of fresh basil, parsley, or Mediterranean oregano
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. Toss all ingredients together in a serving bowl. Allow to rest on the kitchen side (so the flavors can marry) while you grill your chicken, bake your fish fingers, or whathaveyou.

23 June 2018

Sunday in the Garden

Our house is bordered on three sides by a deep flower bed. Ten years ago, when we moved in, the bed was mostly weed-choked mulch, dotted by islands of evergreens, azalea, and the odd clump of daffodils and hosta. I immediately removed the hostas (hate hostas so very very much), launched a (largely unsuccessful) decade-long war on the weeds, and began filling in the sea of mulch with perennials and more spring-flowering bulbs.

Dalmatian Bellflower (Campanula portenschlagiana)

It's a lot of garden for one not-very-dedicated gardener to manage and, next to my neighbor's perfect lawn and flower beds, tends to look quite unkempt. But the critters like it! The flower beds are busy with bees and butterflies. Chirpy birds and hustling chipmunk make their homes among the trees and shrubs. Last year, we even had a fox denning under our shed! This year ... well, this year we had a visiting bear. I will take all that over cosmetic perfection.

Recently, I've been trying to follow the National Wildlife Federation's Garden for Wildlife "Garden Certification Walk-through Checklist." Food, water, cover, and places to raise young are pretty well in hand, but the sustainable practices requirements are giving me some trouble. I use mulch and don't water much, but while that meets the requirements for "Soil and Water Conservation," it hardly feels like trying.

Cranesbill spangled with rain.

I'd like to get a rain barrel, but have yet to do so despite talking about it with The Husband for years now. It's just ... would we use it properly or would it just be one of those well-intentioned bad ideas? Like the compost bins, which seemed like a great idea, but were (in hindsight) badly positioned and poorly managed.

Anyway, if anything is really stymieing me, it's the "Organic Practices." Up to a year ago, I had a compost bin, but now all that compost has been worked into the vegetable beds and our green waste goes straight out (I know, I know). So no compost bin and I'm still using chemical fertilizers. Not a lot, but a couple bags of Miracle-Gro garden soil get worked into my vegetable beds every spring and I do water new perennial plantings with Miracle-Gro to give them, I feel, a fighting chance. It's a crutch, I know, and I could switch to organics, but laziness and lack of surety hold me back.

Also ... well, there's that constant feeling of the world ending in my lifetime, so what does matter if I never certify my garden? I think gardening is supposed to inspire optimism in a person, but lately all I feel is a resigned sort of pragmatism.

Focus on the delphinium & not the weeds behind it.

20 June 2018

Wordless Wednesday: Bear!

A black bear at our bay window earlier this week.
Took the window feeder right off & ate all the yummy seeds inside.

14 June 2018

#ImprovCooking: Red, White, & Blue

June's Improv Cooking Challenge theme was red, white, and blue. This would have been the perfect opportunity to trot out a patriotic Battenberg cake, but I just didn't have that kind of time. (Do you know how many years a Battenberg has sat at the top of my "to bake" list? Too. Darn. Many. Someday, Battenberg, someday.) So here's a bright, seasonal salad full of fresh berries and all the right colors. It is simply dressed to taste with a mixture of olive oil and lemon-infused white balsamic vinegar, as I didn't want to overwhelm the berries.

Red: Strawberries
Reddish: Red Onions
White: Jicama
Whitish: Chicken
Blue: Blueberries
Blueish: Blue Cheese


I used canapé cutters to stamp out blossom-shaped pieces of jicama for the "white" in this salad, because I was trying for maximum pretty. Small cubes would work, too, and a Granny Smith apple or Asian pear would be fine substitute if you can't find jicama at your local market. My local grocery stores keeps jicama in two places -- either (already peeled and chopped) next to diced cantaloupe and watermelon or (whole) next to the plantains and coconut.

But what is jicama, you ask? Jicama is as squat roundish root vegetable covered in a rough, bark-like brown skin which should be peeled before eating or cooking. The flesh is white and crunchy with a slightly sweet flavor -- it's kind-of like eating water chestnut or an under ripe pear.


Red, White, & Blue Spinach Salad

Yield: 2

Ingredients

  • 4 oz sliced strawberries
  • 3 oz blueberries
  • 1 oz thinly sliced red onion
  • 4 oz jicama cut into blossoms or small cubes
  • 4 oz chopped cooked chicken
  • 3 oz baby spinach
  • 3 Tbsp lemon-infused white balsamic vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 3 Tbsp crumbled blue cheese
  • Salt and pepper, as desired

Instructions

  1. For the salad: in a large bowl, toss together strawberries, blueberries, onion, jicama, chicken, and spinach. Set aside.
  2. For the dressing: in a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, oil, and cheese. Season, as desired, with salt and ground black pepper. Drizzle dressing over salad and gently toss until well distributed.
  3. To serve: Arrange salad on a large serving platter. Garnish with extra cheese, if desired.


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 June 2018

River of Teeth


Set in an alternate 1890s America, where feral hippos run rampant in the Louisiana bayous, a band of hippo wranglers have been hired by the federal government to clear them out ... by blowing up a Very. Big. Dam. The wranglers are a motley bunch, the feral hippos are violent, and there’s a Very. Shady. Man. mixed up in everything. Also, one of the hippo wranglers may be a no good double-crosser.

River of Teeth is a gritty, dark story of violence, mistrust, passion, and revenge. Seriously, the feral hippos are magnificent toothy killing machines and the Bad Man in the bayou is pretty darn Bad. Our gang of wranglers are clearly no heroes themselves, but they’re going to do the job they were hired to do (plus, maybe, get some personal revenge) whatever that takes.

Perhaps to balance out the darkness, a tender, non-binary love story springs up between two of the wranglers and, delightfully, no-one in-story acts like that relationship is unusual in anyway. I do not think I have the words to express quite how pleased I was to encounter an alternate history that actually embraces all its possibilities and doesn’t just default to white, cisgender heterosexual people as the norm.

Overall, I found River of Teeth an enjoyable read. I do wish the novella had been fleshed out into a full-length novel, because sometimes the story felt a bit choppy and under-developed -- continuously promising though, so I never felt tempted to put it down. There is another novella in the series, Taste of Marrow, which appears to continue the story several months on and I may pursue that through my library system. (Both novellas have also been bound together into the collection American Hippo which came out in late May).

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey. Tor, 2017.

10 June 2018

Sunday in the Garden



This spring has been a weird one -- frequently cold and wet with abrupt moments of summer heat and humidity. But, mostly cold and wet. Unsurprisingly, my vegetable beds are not liking this weather. Even what I think of as the cool weather crops -- the spinach and peas, for example -- are growing very slowly.

My peas, which I had already harvested a few times by now last year, are barely a foot tall. The poor spinach took a knocking during the hail storm we had a few weeks ago, but sprang back and has put on some growth. As for the chard and brussels sprouts ... meh.


Of course, what's going to happen is the weather will abruptly turn hot and sunny, everything in the garden will go into overdrive, and I'll have produce coming out of my ears.

Especially after 29 June when my CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) partial share becomes available. Yes, I know I complained last summer about being feeling I was a slave to my CSA share and that I wasn't going to do it again. But, oh, we know I am weak.

The share is through a different farm this year -- Gresczyk Farms out of New Hartford. My friend, Kelly, had bought a full share from Gresczyk last year and, frankly, her shares always looked great. Only a partial share for us this summer (eggs and enough produce for a "household [that] likes to eat vegetables"), but I still pick it up at the Friday farmer's market down from the library so I can still pick up other items like bread and pickles at the same time.


All subscribers receive a weekly email listing our CSA share for the week as well as a weekly handout with recipes and preparation tips. And, really, the weekly email is what sold me. No more being surprised by produce. I mean, I want to try new vegetables -- that is very much the reason I belong to a CSA -- but there was always that moment of panic on Friday afternoons last summer, when I'd find myself staring down at a basket of fennel bulbs wondering if I had the time or wherewithal to deal with them. Now I can menu plan well ahead of time and be ready to cook.

This is all presuming that the commercial farms are doing better than my own backyard garden, of course!

07 June 2018

Creamy Cucumber & Tomato Salad

This creamy cucumber and tomato salad is one of those panicky "oh, my god, why do I have so many X in my fridge?" throw-together recipes. I honestly don't know how I managed to end up with so many cucumbers in my house -- we like cucumbers, certainly, and eat them nearly every day on sandwiches or in salads or just as snacks with a little fancy salt -- but still. I blame the general cuteness of mini cucumbers. They look so small, so twee that it's easy to not think about just how much cucumber is crammed in one of those handy grab-and-go sacks.


Happily, this throw-together recipe worked out really well! But then how can you go wrong with cucumbers, dill, and sour cream? It's a classic combination.

I cut the sour cream with a little mayonnaise, because that seemed like a good idea at the time, but you could omit it if you are not a mayonnaise-lover -- the salad will just be a bit more tart, of course. I used Hellmann's Majonez Babuni ("Granma's Mayonnaise"), which is I buy from one of the Polish grocers. It's a little sweeter and more velvety than regular Hellmann's, but not nearly as sweet or cloying as Miracle Whip. In retrospect I think, maybe, I was unconsciously trying to make a sauce that was texturally similar to salad cream?


Creamy Cucumber & Tomato Salad

Yield: 2

Ingredients

  • 2 Tbsp sour cream
  • 1 Tbsp mayonnaise
  • 1 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp onion powder
  • 1 Tbsp dried dill weed
  • 1 cup seeded, chopped tomato
  • ½ shallot, thinly sliced
  • 2 cups halved sliced cucumber
  • Salt & pepper, to taste

Instructions

  1. In a serving bowl, whisk together sour cream, mayonnaise, red wine vinegar, garlic powder, onion powder, and dried dill.
  2. Add cucumbers, tomatoes, and shallot to bowl. Toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Adjust other seasonings as necessary. Serve.

04 June 2018

Let It Shine


Since the untimely death of her mother, Sofie has tried very hard to be a good girl. A church-going, law-abiding young lady. Nice. Quiet. Docile. Decidedly not someone who participates in sit-ins or falls in love with a white Jewish boxer. But there’s a fire burning deep inside Sofie and nice isn’t enough, anymore.

Let It Shine was as much a coming of age story as it was a romance. Sure, it was delightful to see Ivan and Sofie reconnect after years apart, discovering a love so tender and true that it made me a bit goofy. But, even better was watching Sofie come out of her "good girl" shell, fighting through others expectations to become the woman she was meant to be. Yes, Sofie was frequently scared of what might happen to her given the dangers of the era, but she kept going.

Let It Shine was not always an easy book to read -- there's simply no way a Civil Rights era romance wasn't going to make me cry or chew my thumb -- but it was a very rewarding, satisfying one.

Let It Shine by Alyssa Cole. CreateSpace, 2016.

30 May 2018

Wordless Wednesday: A Cat Does Not Share

Ms. Grumpy Boots does not understand why the humans want to sleep in her bed.

28 May 2018

The Marsh King’s Daughter


After a traumatic childhood, Helena moved away from her family, changed her surname, and created a new life that (she thought) kept her safely under the radar. Helena was content.

Then Helena’s father escapes from prison and she has no doubt he will come looking for her. A murderous psychopath, kidnapper, and rapist -- the man is definitely not someone Helena wants anywhere near her husband and daughters. So, using all the tracking skills he taught her, Helena hunts her father.

The Marsh King’s Daughter is an atmospheric and mesmerizing psychological thriller about a woman whose secret past catches up with her and threatens to destroy the life she has built for herself. The book alternates between the past and the present, steadily ratcheting up the nail-biting dramatic tension as the parallel story-lines progress. Child Helena, ignorant of many truths, adores her father intensely. Adult Helena, knowing the truth about her parents’ relationship and recognizing that her childhood was completely fucked-up, still longs for her father’s approbation ... even as she understands she’s going to have to kill him.

With The Marsh King’s Daughter Dionne has crafted an absolutely riveting story -- the characters and the plot are very well developed and the marsh feels like a very real, very familiar place. Rankin’s narration is also spot-on and I cannot tell you how many times I willingly considered being late for work so I could listen to “just a little bit more.”

Be warned, though, that there’s a lot of violence in The Marsh King’s Daughter -- both the constant, oppressive shadow of it and the fully-realized bloody kind. However, this is no torture porn. Violence is there, because it is the way of things in the marsh, but there’s no glorification or sensualization of it. I’m just saying that, if you’re sitting in a parking lot listening to this with your car windows down on your lunch break, you might get some curious looks!

The Marsh King’s Daughter written by Karen Dionne & read by Emily Rankin. Penguin Audio: 2017.

24 May 2018

Exploring Mexican Made Easy for Cookbook Club


For May's library cookbook club, I made "Maria Cookie & Lime Cream Trifle" from Marcela Valladolid's Mexican Made Easy. When I hear "trifle" I think of the English dessert made with fruit, sherry-soaked sponge, and custard. Well, this trifle is nothing like that, but it's still fabulous -- a creamy, sweet-tart no-bake treat that goes together in minutes, keeps well, and can go straight from fridge to table.

Maria cookies are a very mild, slightly sweetened cookie more similar to a British rich tea biscuit than a traditional American "cookie." They're usually easy to find in the "ethnic" aisle of most grocery stores although Valladolid writes graham crackers can be substituted for the Maria biscuits, if you prefer. I stuck with Maria cookies, because the recipe only uses four ingredients and so substituting one just seemed wrong.

I tried my best to make the recipe exactly as instructed, but ended up doubling the number of layers as I still had a lot of biscuit and cream left after following the instructions (it was either that or make two trifles ... which, in hindsight, I realize might have been a grand idea as I would have had my own private trifle). Proportionally, to get the number of layers Valladolid calls for, I think you'd need to halve the amount of ingredients.

The recipe says it makes six to eight servings, but I would say closer to ten to twelve. No-one stinted in their servings, but there was still plenty left for my coworkers. Honestly, it's a very bright, zesty pud -- rather like deconstructed key lime pie -- and I'm not going to complain about having had too much of it!

When I whizzed the milks and lime juice in my stand mixer, the liquids did thicken up a bit but were still worryingly soupy. However, when I went to serve the trifle seven hours later, the liquid had set into a thick pudding. The biscuits had softened up considerably, but still retained their shape and enough firmness to add a pleasing texture to the trifle.

In addition to the trifle, I've made two other recipes from Mexican Made Easy -- "Red and White Kidney Salad" and "Corn and Zucchini Sauté" -- and they were both easy and flavorful. While I imagine the sauté will be even better with in-season ingredients, it was still very satisfying as it was. The crunchy bacon added a delicious smoky savoriness to the dish that pushed the salad from very nice to "I'm going to eat the whole pan on my own."

The bean salad was also pretty wow. Bright and refreshing with just the right about of zip. A lot of bean salads I've made go the "more ingredients are better" route, but this simple combination of ingredients reminded me that more isn't always better. While I made a significant attempt to eat all the tasty beans the first night, there were leftovers and they kept very nicely in the fridge until the next day when I let them come to room temperature before tossing them with baby spinach and eating them as a main.


Overall, I'm very pleased with my experience cooking from Marcela Valladolid's Mexican Made Easy and look forward to trying out her other cookbooks soon.

21 May 2018

The Murders of Molly Southbourne


The Murders of Molly Southbourne is a strange little novella, at once compelling and also surprisingly unsatisfying. I read it in one sitting, frequently wanting to put it down and disliking it intensely at points, but could not stop reading. Yet, after I finished, I found myself skimming back through The Murders of Molly Southbourne, feeling certain I'd missed something.

Oh, I enjoyed the premise -- whenever Molly bleeds, her spilt blood grows into other mollys who must be dealt with before they turn all murder-y -- but, ultimately, the novella felt unfinished and I was left with SO. MANY. QUESTIONS.

My questions are more than a bit spoilery, so you might want to stop here with "The world-building in The Murders of Molly Southbourne is vague and unsatisfying, but I'm pretty sure I'd watch a season of it were it to be adapted by Netflix or Amazon."

  • Why did Molly's blood generate mollys?
  • Where did the mollys come from when she wasn't bleeding -- I understand one was alive, zombie-like, down a hole for years -- but what of the others?
  • Why did the other mollys want to kill her?
  • Why was the "last" molly different?

Evolutionary drive seemed a hand-wavy answer to these questions.

And then there were what I think of as the "menstrual questions:"

  • Why did Molly's mother not explain menstruation to her long before it happened? If Molly's blood births monsters, than surely menarche should be a time of extra concern?
  • Why is Molly burying the evidence of her monthlies? Why not burn them in the furnace with the mollys? I'm imagining a diaper pail full of diluted bleach in the bathroom, that she adds bloody stuff to & then takes to the furnace? Rather than burying it in the back garden, which is just a big NOPE.
  • Why isn't Molly using a continuous birth control pill to keep from menstruating? Molly's world suffers from an extremely low birthrate and I can see where that might mean birth control would be frowned upon or difficult to obtain, but she's a also registered hemophiliac. Certainly, there's no mention of contraception when she discusses sex, but what do I know?

See, I told you -- SO. MANY. QUESTIONS.

The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson. Tor: 2017.

17 May 2018

Cookbook Club: The Flavors of Mexico

May's cookbook club theme was "The Flavors of Mexico" -- a fun opportunity to try out a new Mexican or Mexican-inspired recipe. It might have been smarter to save the theme for summer when tomatoes, chiles, cilantro, and corn are in season here, but I didn't really think about that when I planned out my calendar. Anyway, participating cooks did not disappoint, bringing in a impressive range of tasty dishes:

  • "Creamy Chicken Chipotle Salad" from Simply Mexican by Lourdes Castro. Fresh, bright take on the traditional Cobb salad. The creamy, smoky chipotle sauce was just fab.

  • "Cubiletes de Requeson (Individual Cheese Pies)" from My Sweet Mexico by Fany Gerson.
    Light, slightly sweet cheese filling with lots of nice citrus flavor nestled in a flaky, slightly sweet empanada dough crust. (The cook who made these could not find Requesón and so substituted ricotta, as the book described Requesón as falling being somewhere between ricotta and pot cheese in constancy and flavor).

  • "Dulce de Frijol (Bean Candy)" from My Sweet Mexico by Fany Gerson. These soft, pinto-based sweets had a consistency similar to marzipan, smelled strongly of cinnamon, and tasted mildly of orange. If we hadn't been told they were made of beans, I doubt any of us would have guessed. (It took much longer to make than the recipe indicated, the cook said, and there was a ridiculous amount of stirring needed).

  • "Pan de Elote (Corn Bread)" from My Sweet Mexico by Fany Gerson. This is not corn bread as we are used to seeing it. No, this was creamy and custard-like -- kind-of like a chess pie in consistency -- and tasted like the best of summer on a plate.

  • "Stacked Torte" from Quesadillas by Donna Meeks Kelly. A layered quesadilla made of ground turkey, red enchilada sauce, salsa, corn, black beans, flour tortillas, and cheese. Very Tex-Mex, very comforting and hearty.

  • "Tortilla Soup" from Simply Mexican by Lourdes Castro. Just ... see below.

  • "Maria Cookie & Lime Cream Trifle" from Mexican Made Easy by Marcela Valladolid. Marvelously zesty. Kind of like eating deconstructed key lime pie. It's my dish, so expect a post about it later.

¡Que delicioso!


Fany Gerson's My Sweet Mexico proved a popular recipe source and we were all really smitten with the dishes prepared from it. The creamy "Pan de Elote" was very morish, the "Cubiletes de Requeson" a nice balance of textures and flavors, and we just could not stop talking about the "Dulce de Frijol," because Bean. Candy. Just a fascinating (and delicious!) concept.

And now, a little weirdness: I am 99% sure the cook brought the "Tortilla Soup" passed off a completely different dish as Castro's. We certainly ate a soup, but it does not resemble the one in Castro's recipe. The one served was full of corn, beans, and shredded chicken while Castro's sounds much more vegetal with a thinned roasted vegetable puree base and lots of fresh toppings. It's not even as if she just added in extra ingredients -- it seems like a completely different soup. The one served was good, but I don't know why she tried to pass it off as Castro's. If she'd tried Castro's recipe and it failed ... well, why not say? We've all had failures before. No-one judges. Indeed, some of the failures people have shared have yielded the liveliest and most pleasant conversations.

All I know is, curiosity demands I make Castro's "Tortilla Soup" as soon as possible to see what it's like!

16 May 2018

Wordless Wednesday: Dwarf Iris After Rain

Dwarf bearded irises speckled with rain. Variety might be "Scruples," but I can't be certain. Transplanted from my mom's garden yonks ago.

14 May 2018

Murder on the Orient Express


Seeing Kenneth Branagh's production of Murder on the Orient Express last fall made me itch to read Christie's novel again, but copies were thin on the ground as every library patron seemed to have the same idea. I reckoned I'd pick it up again once the interest died down, but then simply forgot about it entirely (as one does when constantly surrounded by other equally tempting books).

Happily, The Husband was paying attention and gave me a copy of Audio Partners unabridged production read by David Suchet. Suchet was my formative Poirot -- Masterpiece Mystery! introduced me to the Belgian detective years before I read any of Christie's novels -- and will forever live in my heart as the only Poirot that matters. Whether I read the books or listen to Hugh Fraser narrate the audio books, David Suchet's Poirot is the detective I see in my head.

Unsurprisingly, this unabridged recording of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express is just superb. As always, David Suchet demonstrates an impressive range of vocal talent -- his voice for each character is distinct and appropriate to the character. Yes, some of the characters might be a little over the top, but I feel Christie might have meant them to be? To me, at least, Christie's characters tend to seem full of stereotypes and it seems like she's deliberately having fun with this in Murder on the Orient Express.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed Suchet's reading and found myself always eager to know what the next scene would bring ... even though I've read Murder on the Orient Express twice and watched two adaptations now.

Murder on the Orient Express written by Agatha Christie & read by David Suchet. Audio Partners: 2001.

09 May 2018

Wordless Wednesday: Dicentra spectabilis

This pink bleeding heart is one of my garden favorites.

03 May 2018

Baked Tortilla-Crusted Tilapia

Often, when I buy a box of hard taco shells, one or two will be broken. I save these shells in a bag for "later" with the expectation I'll crush them up to top taco salad or a casserole or something, but what actually happens is that I just end up with a bag of broken taco shells rattling around the cupboards for months, getting in the way and annoying me to no end.

But no more! For I have finally used my bag of broken taco shells! I ground them up in the food processor and used them to coat tilapia fillets. This isn't a very original idea, I know, but it made for tasty fish. If you don't have a bag of broken taco shells on hand, tortilla chips would also work just fine.



Baked Tortilla-Crusted Tilapia

Yield:3-4

Ingredients

  • 1 lb whole tilapia fillets
  • 5 hard yellow corn taco shells
  • 1 tsp salt-free southwestern-style seasoning blend [Penzeys Arizona Dreaming]
  • 2 egg whites
  • Salsa, for serving
  • Guacamole, if desired, for serving

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F.
  2. Line a half sheet (13" x 18") pan with baking parchment.
  3. Pat fillets dry with a paper towel. Cut fillets in half, length-wise, and set aside.
  4. Pulverize taco shells in a food processor until finely ground. Pour into a shallow dish -- a soup bowl or pie plate works well. Stir in seasoning blend.
    Serve with salsa and guacamole, as desired.
  5. Place egg whites in another shallow dish.
  6. Dip fillets in egg and then in tortilla crumb mixture.
  7. Place fillets on the parchment-lined sheet pan and bake at 400°F for 15 minutes or until crispy and fish is 145°F.
  8. Serve with salsa and guacamole, as desired.

We ate this tilapia with cucumber salad and garlicky cilantro rice. The rice was the usual medium grain white cooked in low sodium chicken broth with dried garlic flakes, but I stirred a generous handful of minced cilantro into the finished rice just before serving. As a meal, it was light but filling with bright, clean, summery flavors.

Anyway, I've switched over to using corn tortillas, so I shouldn't have to deal with broken shells in the future. If we want them crispy, I follow Mexican Please's method for oven-baked shells.

26 April 2018

Slow Cooker Creamy Chicken & Mushrooms

I'd planned on making Pillsbury's "Slow-Cooker Creamy Tuscan Chicken" for Sunday dinner, but failed to notice I didn't have any sun-dried tomatoes left until it was too late. And by "too late" I mean it was Sunday morning and I was not getting out of my comfiest jim-jams to go to the store for anything. Rummaging around, I saw I had roasted peppers and mushrooms ... so I made this modified version, which was garlicky and good.


Yes, the original recipe calls for boneless chicken breasts and I clearly used boneless thighs. I was always going to use thighs. Thighs are dark meat and, therefore, more flavorful and "chicken-y." Also, unlike breasts, thighs don't go all dry and mealy in the slow cooker.


Slow Cooker Creamy Chicken & Mushrooms

Yield: 4

Ingredients

  • 6 boneless skinless chicken thighs
  • 14.5 oz jar creamy cheese sauce
  • 8 oz sliced white button mushrooms
  • 5 oz jarred roasted red peppers, patted dry & sliced into thin strips
  • 1 tsp salt-free Italian seasoning
  • 1 tsp dehydrated minced garlic
  • 2 tsp cornstarch plus cold water as needed
  • 4 oz baby spinach

Instructions

  1. Layer chicken, mushrooms, and roasted pepper strips in the slow cooker insert. Sprinkle with seasoning and garlic flakes.
  2. Cover; cook on low for 5 hours or until chicken is 165°F.
  3. Whisk together cornstarch and cold water until cornstarch is completely dissolved.
  4. Stir slurry into slow cooker. Add spinach and continue to cook on low for 20 minutes or until sauce is thickened and spinach is limp.
  5. Serve over pasta, rice, or more spinach.
I left the thighs whole when I made this, but I think it would be easier to serve if I had cut them into chunks to begin with.

20 April 2018

Cookbook Club: Brinner (Breakfast for Dinner)

April's library cookbook theme was brinner (breakfast for dinner). I thought this was a fun, quirky topic that would appeal to many different kinds of cooks. Apparently, I misjudged, because only seven cooks registered for the meeting ... of which, five turned up. I'm a little frustrated by the low turnout, because -- while there certainly seems to be a lot of interest in the club -- it is nearing its one year anniversary with attendance numbers lower than when it launched.

Anyway, the cooks who came were very excited to share their dishes:
  • "Amish Breakfast Casserole" from Taste of Home's Brunch Favorites: 201 Delicious Ideas to Start Your Day. So much cheesy potato goodness. Hearty, but not heavy. Very morish.

  • "Baked Cinnamon-Apple French Toast" from Gale Gand's Brunch! 100 Fantastic Recipes for the Weekend's Best Meal. Crunchy on the edges, moist and custardy in the middle, and so wonderfully redolent of cinnamon and apples. The honey butter topping sounded like too much, but paired wonderfully. Just thinking about this dish makes my mouth water.

  • "Breakfast Scramble" also from Taste of Home's Brunch Favorites: 201 Delicious Ideas to Start Your Day. The cook who made this used canned potatoes (to save herself 20 minutes), but there's no way we'd have been able to tell if she hadn't mentioned it. A nice, meaty hash.

  • "Syrupy Banana-Nut Overnight French Toast" from Good Housekeeping The Great Potluck Cookbook: Our Favorite Recipes for Carry-In Suppers, Brunch Buffets, Tailgate Parties & More. Creamy, custardy french toast a top a layer of gooey caramelized banana goodness. Very reminiscent of bananas foster and totally yum.

  • "Three-Meat Quiche" from The Perfect Egg: A Fresh Take on Recipes for Morning, Noon, and Night by Teri Lyn Fisher & Jenny Park. A fluffy, creamy, cheesy quiche filled with smoked ham, bacon, and sausage. We ate it closer to room temperature than warm and it was still delish -- and the crust was still crisp!


Everyone enjoyed talking about the cookbooks they'd used and the recipes they'd made. We were all very complimentary about each others' dishes and seconds (quite possibly thirds) were taken. I'm pretty sure everyone left with the intent of making their own dish of "Baked Cinnamon-Apple French Toast" as soon as possible.

And what did I make? I made "Chili and Cheese Crustless Quiche" from Taste of Home's Casseroles, Slow Cooker & Soups: 515 Hot & Hearty Dishes Your Family Will Love. As this was a quick-cooking slow cooker dish, I assembled and cooked it at the library before the club met. I'd fully intended to try the recipe at home over the weekend -- to make sure it worked -- but didn't have the time. Happily, cooking the quiche at work turned out fine and everyone seemed to enjoy it.


Some of the cooks that come to cookbook club aren't keen on very spicy foods, so I only used two cans of chiles rather than the three called for. Both cans were diced, as well, as I couldn't find whole canned chiles that weren't pickled. I didn't know what brand of chili con carne was best, so just went with Hormel's turkey chili without beans as it had fewer calories and less fat that other chilis on the shelf at the grocery store. The finished quiche did have a little kick, but the cheese and egg helped balance that. Overall, I feel it's something I'd make for myself.

This is not the first time I used Taste of Home's Casseroles, Slow Cooker & Soups for cookbook club -- I made the "Slow-Cooked Shepherd's Pie" back in February, when the theme was "Pies: Sweet & Savory." I've also made a few recipes from this cookbook just for myself -- the "Mexican Beef Stuffed Peppers" and "Chicken Merlot With Mushrooms" -- with good results. This is not the most exciting, cutting-edge cookbook out there, but its recipes are reliable and family-friendly (and almost always accompanied by very attractive photographs).

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.