Stuff and Nonsense: November 2012


Delicious Duck For Beginners

Many years ago, we used to visit a little restaurant that did a rather yummy duck confit with dark cherry puree. I liked it very much -- duck and cherries are a classic combination for a good reason -- but The Husband does not like fruit with meat and hates cherries (weirdo!) so always ate his duck confit with béarnaise sauce.

The restaurant went out of business a few years ago and it's been hard finding another restaurant that serves good duck ... so when I saw boneless duck breasts at The Meat House a few weeks ago, I experienced a significant "A-ha!" moment. Why not make my own duck? And I did. And it was good. Not restaurant-nostalgia good, but pretty darn good for something I'd never cooked before.

My first duck (breast)

Anyway, The Husband really liked it and that's all that matters! I served it with béarnaise sauce, buttermilk-smashed baby Yukon Gold potatoes, and buttery tinned carrots (because The Husband digs buttery squishy carrots). The whole meal cost a bazillion-trillion-million Weight Watchers Points+, but was well worth it.
Simple Duck Breasts

1½ pounds duck breast (it looks like a big flap of skin with two palm-sized pieces of muscle)
salt and pepper, as desired

Preheat the oven to 400F°

Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat.

Trim the skin around each breast so that it just fits the meat. Score the skin in a criss-cross pattern, being careful not to cut the meat. Season liberally with salt and pepper.

Place the duck breasts, fat side down, in the skillet and cook for about 6 minutes -- the skin will shrink quite a lot and there will be a lot of rendered duck fat at the bottom of the skillet. Reserve rendered fat for roasting potatoes or whathaveyou.

Flip the duck breasts over and sear for 1 minute. Put them fat-side-down in a small baking dish and roast for 10 minutes. Let the duck breasts rest for 5 minutes then thinly slice on the bias into ½-inch pieces. (If you have an oven-safe skillet, you can just pop that in the oven and save dirtying a dish).


Miss Clare Remembers

I used to pooh-pooh the Miss Read books as ridiculously twee and rusticated, but time seems to have worn me down, because I now find them rather charming. Oh, the classism and racism are still there, but they don't make me want to set anyone's thatch on fire. Maybe, because I've lost most of my idealism and see my time can be as deeply flawed and punishing as the time of Miss Read's Faireacre and Beech Green?

Anyway, I've been sick with a miserable chest cold since Sunday and was feeling pretty low and self-pitying when I found Miss Read's Miss Clare Remembers at the bottom of my (ridiculously large) pile of library loot. I didn't remember borrowing it, but there it was and due next Monday, too!

Figuring I could do with something gentle and twee, I opened Miss Clare Remembers ... and surfaced, bereft, hours later. Miss Clare Remembers was a bittersweet story of friendship that spanned seventy years -- surviving the end of Victoria's reign, the Boer War, two world wars, the death of agrarian England, and the development of the modern English public education system.

Thinking about it, that sounds rather hideous. Who wants to read fiction about the modern education system and three wars? Oh, but it's so well written! The fact of post-Victorian England woven so closely into the fiction of Miss Clare's life. It's impossible not to be fascinated. That said, I grew up on a diet of Anne Shirley and Laura Ingalls -- I have a great affection for teachers in old-timey fiction. And fiction of this time period -- when we're moving from a seemingly static world to one that is constantly changing -- is also a great interest of mine. Really, it's no wonder I enjoyed Miss Clare Remembers.

And I think you would like it, too. Miss Clare Remembers is a gentle, truly enjoyable read. There's sadness and suffering, of course, but that just makes the joys that much deeper.

I suppose some people would think our lives have been narrow, and would feel sorry for us. But I think we've been two of the luckiest women alive -- to have lived all our lives in this dear small place and to have watched the children grow up and have children of their own, and always to have had our friends about us.

Miss Clare Remembers by Miss Read (Houghton Mifflin, 1963)


Thanksgiving Leftovers: Stuffing Waffles

I found a Rachael Ray recipe for "Leftover Stuffing Waffles" and, since I had a huge amount a leftover slow cooker turkey dressing, I knew I had to give it a try. I love waffles. I love stuffing. Waffled stuffing sounded like definite win.

And, you know, it looked good. I'd followed the instructions exactly -- preheated the waffle iron, liberally brushed it with melted unsalted butter, and packed it with leftover turkey dressing. I put my small oval French oven on top of the waffle iron to press the dressing down nice and tight and let it cook for a full eight minutes. When I lifted the lid, the cooked waffle was golden and crispy on top. It looked pretty darn good.

Waffled Stuffing

But then I tried to take the waffle out ... and it wouldn't come out. Oh, the top layer (all crispy-crunchy goodness) did, but the bottom stuck fast. It was a very sad waffle. Next time I would, as the good woman says, "butter yo shit" and maybe that waffle would just slide right out of the iron.

Thanksgiving Leftovers

Anyway, fail waffle still tasted okay! Topped the waffle bits with reheated turkey and gravy and The Husband had no issue with it and cleaned his plate.


Italian Homework: Rich Hot Chocolate

For "Lesson 10: Italy's Favorite Beverages," the penultimate antepenultimate class in the online Italian cooking course I've been taking through Universal Class and my public library, I was to make one of the beverages discussed in the lesson.

Unfortunately, it was all coffee or alcohol. As I don't drink coffee and didn't want to buy bottles of liquor to make mixed drinks I might not want to repeat, I petitioned my instructor to allow an alternate recipe and she, lovely woman, told I could make Italian hot chocolate.

Chocolate curls
Beautiful pure dark chocolate (54% cocoa) shavings

Ah, but which recipe? "'Nun's Revenge' Fabulous Italian Hot Chocolate" sounded tempting, but so did "Italian Hot Chocolate - Cioccolato Caldo." However, I didn't have Dutch process cocoa or arrowroot powder or orange peel and was just not going grocery shopping the weekend after Thanksgiving. So I ended up making bell'alimento's "Italian Hot Chocolate" with heavy cream and Lake Champlain Chocolate's Old World Drinking Chocolate (only 54% cocoa, but still plenty decadent). And it was fabulously rich and chocolaty! Like drinking a cup of hot runny chocolate pudding sprinkled with crack!

Italian Hot Chocolate
Is it a beverage? Is it a dessert?
A little bit went a long way, yes, so I served the hot chocolate in small teacups instead of the giant mugs we usually use. But, even though it was rich and chocolaty, it was not overwhelmingly so and I finished the cup knowing I'd be happy to drink it again in a day or two. The Husband also enjoyed this Italian hot chocolate very much -- said it was like drinking the hot, liquid center of a chocolate lava cake!

(Really, it's a fabulous recipe and I recommend everyone visit bell'alimento and give "Italian Hot Chocolate" a try. You won't regret it!)

The Cats of Roxville Station

Dumped off a bridge by humans who no longer want her now that summer is past, Ratchet manages to make her way to the fields surrounding Roxville Station. Through trial-and-error as well as careful, surreptitious observation of the other feral cats, Ratchet learns how to make a safe home for herself, where to hunt, and how to avoid humans while taking advantage of human civilization. Ratchet grows into a fine hunter and survivor, moving her way up the feral cat hierarchy until she is second only to Queenella. She could, indeed, soon displace Queenella ... but she keeps crossing paths with Mike, a foster boy who longs for a cat of his own and is desperate to woo Ratchet. Will he succeed in becoming Ratchet's First Home?

I picked this novel up because I was looking for something a little like Chi's Sweet Home as the next volume isn't out until August 2013. And, heartbreakingly sad and sweet as it was, The Cats of Roxville Station did give me a good idea of what life might have been like for Chi had she not been taken in by humans but immediately fallen in with Blackie or Coochi.

This book isn't just about a pack of fictional feral cats -- there's quite a lot of science to it with talk of cat behavior and development, the lifecycle of monarch butterflies, and dwindling barn owl habitat. As someone interested in urban/suburban wildlife, I found The Cats of Roxville Station to be extremely interesting. And charming. Very, very charming.

The Cats of Roxville Station written by Jean Craighead George & illus. by Tom Pohrt (Dutton, 2009)


Thanksgiving Feasting

Thanksgiving Menu


~ Simple Heritage Roast Turkey ~
(New York Times November 7, 2007)

~ Southern Living's Slow-Cooker Cornbread Dressing ~
(Southern Living's 2005 Annual Recipes)

~ Garlic Mashed Potatoes ~
(Made early and kept warm in my other slow cooker)

~ Bourbon-Maple Mashed Sweet Potatoes ~

~ Peas in Buttery Thyme Sauce ~

~ "Roasted Garlic Creamed Spinach" ~
(From the fine cooks at Whole Foods)

~ Corn with Garlic Butter ~

~ "Golden Creamed Onions" ~
(Diane Morgan's The Thanksgiving Table using frozen onions)

~ Whole-berry Cranberry Sauce ~

~ Floury Rolls and Butter ~

~ Assorted Pickles ~


~ Mom's Pies ~


You know you've made too much food when you run out of serving spoons! It was all really very delicious and I'm looking forward to days and days of yummy leftovers, but ... maybe scale Thanksgiving back a bit in 2014? I have six "good" serving spoons and a meat fork. That's seven dishes. That's plenty for six people. Turkey and gravy, stuffing, one potato, four vegetables.

I didn't make as much ahead of time as previous Thanksgiving's, but never felt particularly rushed or out of control. This was our fifth Thanksgiving in this house and I think I've got it down pretty pat. Aside from running mad and Cooking All The Things, of course.

And now there be sandwiches! And soup! And pot pie! And waffles! Omnomnom.


A Girl's Life

Last week, I picked up a copy of Places I Never Meant to Be: Original Stories by Censored Writers and I’m sure it’s brilliant, but I haven’t gotten past the introduction because there on the second page, amidst Blume’s references to Thomas Hardy and the Bronte sisters (and I am well pleased to know another 12-year-old read Bronte) was a brief mention of someone or something called “Marjorie Morningstar.” Whatever it was, just those two words together sounded fantastic -- like some long-limbed ingénue in a film from the 1930s:

Joan Bennett, a blonde ingénue in the 1930s
And it turned out I wasn’t too far from the truth. A quick Google search turned up the novel Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk (and film starring Natalie Portman) about a respectable young Jewish woman in 1930s New York who dreams of becoming an actress. I’m only two chapters in, but I’m thoroughly enjoying myself. Marjorie is young and full of dreams and ambition, but that youth and ambition clashes with the expectations of her nouveau bourgeois Eastern European immigrant family. While they clearly want her to be happy and successful, they have very different ... generational ... definitions of happiness and success.
She picked up the black dress of the chair and smoothed it gratefully. It had done its work well. Other girls had floundered through the dance in wretched tulles and flounces and taffetas, like the dresses her mother had tried for two weeks to buy for the great occasion. But she had fought for this tube of curving black crepe silk, high-necked enough to seem demure, and had won; she had captivated the son of a millionaire. That was how much her mother knew about clothes.
Does she sound a little like a heartless bitch in that excerpt? I don't think she's meant to be ... or at least no more than any other teenage girl hellbent on seizing her destiny with both hands.


Manga: Shoulder-A-Coffin Kuro, Volume 1

Sweet, melancholy manga! A mysterious androgyne, dressed from head to toe in black and carrying an empty coffin, travels around on an equally mysterious quest that has something to do with witches. She is accompanied in her travels by Nijuku and Sanju, super-cute cat-eared (and tailed!) genetically engineered twins, and the superbly snarky bat, Sen.

Kuro's story isn't told in chronological order, which caused me some confusion until I caught on, but it actually works well considering the story's slow and (mostly) gentle pace. There would be no mystery to Kuro if we knew her story straight off and her interactions with Nijuku and Sanju would be much less bittersweet.

The majority of the story is told in very detailed black and white panels with a dozen or so colored pages scattered through the first third of the volume. While the black and white panels are well done, the colored pages are so charming that I wish the entire volume had been done in color. My favorite colored page shows the three "humans" drinking tea across a fence with two old women -- it's just so sweetly domestic after everything that's happened to the twins:

So far, there are three more volumes in series. The third just came out November 20 and the first two are still in print, so now is a very good time to start a new manga series if you're looking for something charming yet also a little melancholy.

Shoulder-A-Coffin Kuro, Volume 1 by Satoko Kiyuduki (Yen Press, 2008)


Improv Challenge: Sweet Potatoes & Honey

I love sweet potatoes so I was very happy to find November's Improv Challenge ingredients were sweet potatoes and honey. I considered many dishes -- including these beautiful tzimmes from the Boston Globe -- but eventually settled on soup, because it's soup weather here. Too many grey, dreary days that cry out for a beautiful bowl of rich, spicy-sweet, orange goodness.

Making Curried Cauliflower & Sweet Potato Soup

I've made Sue Bee Honey's recipe for "Cauliflower and Sweet Potato Curry Soup" twice now -- the first time I used thawed frozen organic cauliflower instead of fresh and just added them to the pot during the potatoes' last ten minutes of cooking time. The second time I used fresh organic cauliflower. While the flavor was better with fresh -- richer and deeper -- it was still good either way and frozen vegetables are certainly a time saver, so don't be afraid to go frozen.

Both times, I omitted the sour cream and cilantro as I don't like cilantro and simply thought the soup was delicious enough without sour cream. And I couldn't find my cinnamon (!) so I substituted Penzeys Baking Spice -- a blend of cinnamon, mace, anise, and cardamom which made the soup even more aromatic and flavorful. Aaaand I used vegetable stock, making this a vegetarian soup perfect for Meatless Monday or whathaveyou.

Making Curried Cauliflower & Sweet Potato Soup

Cauliflower and Sweet Potato Curry Soup


2 tsp olive oil
1 cup chopped red onion
4 garlic gloves, minced
3½ cups sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
4 cups chicken stock [Emeril's Organic Vegetable Stock]
1 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp cinnamon [Penzeys Baking Spice]
2 tsp curry powder [Penzeys Maharajah]
1½ Tbsp honey [local]
16 oz fresh cauliflower florets

Coat bottom of a large French/Dutch oven with cooking spray. Add the oil and heat until fragrant. Add garlic and onion and sauté until softened and fragrant.

Add the curry powder and cinnamon to the hot pot and cook, stirring, until spices are very fragrant. Add in salt, pepper, sweet potatoes, fresh cauliflower (if using), stock, and honey and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes.

Add in the frozen cauliflower (if using) and cook 10 minutes more or until potatoes are tender/easily pierced with a knife. Remove pot from heat and let sit until soup is cool enough to blend without scalding yourself.

Transfer to a food processor or use an immersion blender and puree until soup is creamy and smooth. Return to the pot and thin with more stock, if desired.
An excellent soup full of fabulous flavors! Velvety smooth with the perfect balance of sweet and spicy. It's impossible to just eat one bowl.

Eating the Alphabet: W is for Watercress & Walnuts

November's Eating the Alphabet Challenge was to use U, V, and/or W ingredients. I knew I wanted to use peppery watercress when I saw beautiful green bunches of it piled in with the mint and dill at Shoprite. Not only is watercress delicious, it's full of nutrients like iron, calcium, and Vitamin A and C. I like to eat it in cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches, but that's not really exciting and the Alphabet Challenge is all about excitement and pushing boundaries, you know.

So needed a new spin on watercress. Why not salad? Something light and filling and green? I was first tempted by Patti LaBelle's recipe for "Out-of-This-World Watercress Salad," but tomatoes aren't in season, anymore, and I didn't want to ruin what sounded like a perfectly lovely recipe with questionable tomatoes. So I turned to Martha Stewart and she did not disappoint. Her recipe for "Watercress Salad with Roasted Sweet Potatoes" is delightfully simple and seasonable. If my family was comprised of more adventurous eaters, it's the kind of dish I might start Thanksgiving dinner with. It's very clean-tasting and just looks, to me, like autumn on a plate.

From all this ...
... to this!
Watercress Salad with Roasted Sweet Potatoes
Slightly Adapted From Martha Stewart
Serves 4

1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch-long sticks
3 Tbsp + ½ tsp olive oil
Sea salt and ground pepper
½ cup walnuts
¼ tsp sriracha
2 Tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp honey
12 oz watercress, stems trimmed
4 oz fat free feta crumbles

Preheat oven to 450 °F, with racks on upper and lower thirds. On a rimmed baking sheet, toss sweet potatoes with 1 Tbsp oil; season with salt and pepper. Roast on upper rack, until tender, 20 to 30 minutes, stirring frequently. [Stewart's recipe cooks them longer with less stirring, but mine started to burn so ...]


Remove potatoes from oven and set aside. On another rimmed baking sheet, toss walnuts with sriracha and ½ tsp oil. Bake on lower rack, stirring occasionally, until golden (about 5 minutes).


In a bowl, whisk together lemon juice, honey, and remaining 2 tablespoons oil; season with salt and pepper. [Or put it all in an old jar and shakeshakeshake your dressing]. Toss watercress and dressing together. Serve topped with sweet potatoes, walnuts, and feta. Season with salt and pepper to taste.


This salad best served while the sweet potatoes are still warm -- otherwise they just go kind of cold and chewy and that's not a good thing!

Overall, I really liked this salad.  It was easy, elegant, and completely yum! I'd definitely make it again, but I'll keep a close eye on the oven as some of my sweet potato sticks charred a bit!

If you can't find watercress, I'm sure baby spinach would work fine. Ohhh, baby spinach and blue cheese and sweet potatoes and pecans ...



Watercress & Cucumber Sandwiches

I used watercress in November's Eating the Alphabet Challenge and had just enough leftover to make cucumber and cress sandwiches. While we ate these sandwiches with tomato tortellini soup they're also just fine on their own or with a little fruit salad.

Cucumber & Watercress Sandwiches

Watercress & Cucumber Sandwiches

3 oz neufchâtel, softened
1 cup watercress leaves & thin stems, rinsed and rung out in a tea towel
Juice of half a lemon
Salt and pepper, as desired
Unsalted butter, softened
Cucumber, sliced thin
Thin sandwich bread, crusts removed
Minced cress, for garnish

Whiz the first four ingredients around in your food processor or blender.

Spread every slice of bread with a thin coat of butter. Then spread half with a thicker coat of watercress goo. Top with thinly sliced cucumber. Sprinkle with a little minced cress. Top with the remaining buttered bread. Cut into quarters. Eat.
(You could also add a thin layer of radishes to the sandwiches for a little heat and/or add fresh dill to the watercress spread).

Cucumber & Watercress Sandwiches


Italian Homework: Walnut, Pear, & Gorgonzola Salad

I was all excited to start "Lesson 9: Healthy Italian-Style Salads" in my online Italian cooking class, but then I had a little dental work done and couldn't eat cold, crunchy things for a few weeks. Sheesh. I have preposterously sensitive teeth.

But, except when the wind's blowing northeasterly, my teeth are feeling pretty fine again and so I decided to tackle my salad homework. (Cooking homework is the best homework ever -- if there had been cooking in math class, I would have been a regular teacher's pet and there is actually a lot of math in cooking, you know).

I made "Walnut, Pear, & Gorgonzola Salad," because pears and gorgonzola are just meant to go together. Like peanut butter and jelly or brown sugar and bacon. And, oh my gods, I loved this salad. Loved it. Could happily eat it every day for a week. All the flavors and textures blended together so well and so cleanly that I swear to cake my tastebuds sang with happiness. Salty gorgonzola, grainy pear, crunchy walnuts ... you form a perfect triangle of deliciousness.

You must try this salad.

Making Walnut, Pear, & Gorgonzola Salad
(Ingredients shown are for a single-serving salad)
Easy Walnut, Pear, & Gorgonzola Salad

Salad Ingredients
4 cups chopped romaine lettuce
2 firm but ripe pears, peeled, cored, and chopped [Anjou pears]
½ cup chopped, shelled walnuts
1 cup crumbled gorgonzola cheese [reduced fat]

Dressing Ingredients
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
4 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
½ tsp brown sugar
Salt and pepper to taste

To make the dressing, put all ingredients into a container with a tight fitting lid. Shake well.

Making Walnut, Pear, & Gorgonzola Salad

In a large bowl toss all the salad ingredients, except the cheese, together with the dressing.

Making Walnut, Pear, & Gorgonzola Salad

Place the gorgonzola in a mound in the center of the salad and serve. Goes well with crusty rolls.

Serves 4
Yes, you could substitute your favorite balsamic vinaigrette for the scratch dressing, but why? It only takes a minute to throw together and tastes pretty darn good.

Making Walnut, Pear, & Gorgonzola Salad


Top 10 Tuesday: Favorite Kick-Ass Heroines

This week's Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by the mighty Broke & Bookish, is a freebie where we can pick any topic we like. Since I missed last week (had other things on my mind -- like a hurricane and Halloween), I'm posting my "Top 10 Favorite Kick-Ass Heroines" today.

I read a lot of fantasy, so that’s where most of my "kick-ass" heroines come from. Mind you, few of my heroines literally kick ass, but they are all brave, strong, capable women who Get the Job Done Because It Needs Doing. While few start out brave or strong, all grow to become extremely admirable heroines. (A few, however, are born heroines destined for greatness. It just takes them awhile to find out).
  1. Aeriel: Meredith Ann Pierce’s The Darkangel Trilogy
  2. Aud Torvigen: Nicola Griffith’s Aud Torvingen series [detective noir-ish]
  3. Eon/Eona: Alison Goodman’s Eon and Eona (duology)
  4. Harry Crewe: Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword
  5. Katniss Everdeen: Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games Trilogy
  6. Meliara: Sherwood Smith’s Crown & Court (series)
  7. Paksenarrion: Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksenarrion (series)
  8. Shan Frankland: Karen Traviss's Wess’har (series) [science fiction]
  9. Sioned: Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince (series)
  10. Tenar/Arha/Tenar: (“The Eaten One”) Ursula Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan and Tehanu
I admit, of the ten, Aeriel is my favorite (yes, she even beats out Harry!). I read The Darkangel Trilogy at a highly impressionable age and the novels have stuck with my while other, possibly better works, have been forgotten. The world-building is well done and the secondary characters are all well-fleshed, feeling like real people to me.


Going The Rounds With Hardy

I’m currently reading listening to Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree and I’m finding it hard going. The only reason I’ve even made as far as Chapter 5 is that I’ve started listening to the Librivox recording by Rachel Lintern. The novel is broken into easy-to-listen-to 15(ish) minute increments so I get just enough Hardy to keep me interested in the story, but not so much Hardy my eyes grow heavy and my mind goes fuzzy.

I don’t know what my problem is with Under the Greenwood Tree. Back in my college days, I adored Thomas Hardy. One of the best presents The Husband ever gave me was an old-timey used set of Hardy’s complete works.

Complete Works of Hardy

Yet I just can’t seem to read my way into Under the Greenwood Tree. It has much about it I should love -- rural life at a time of technological and social change, music, pastoral charm, romance -- but I'm just not falling for it.

So yay for Librivox! I don’t know if all its recordings are this good, but Lintern is quite as good as many of the “professional” readers I’ve experienced. She even sings Hardy’s version of “Remember, O Thou Man” in Chapter 4!

Hardy’s version isn’t the one I had in my head so I went wandering through the reference stacks to see if there is a "real" version … and there is. "Remember, O Thou Man" first appears in Thomas Ravenscroft's Melismata. Ravenscroft was an Englishman who lived in the late 1500s/early 1600s and who edited/composed several collections of popular sixteenth century music -- Pammelia Deuteromelia, and Melismata. I'm still a little confused as to whether he composed it or, hearing it sung by yokels, wrote it down with his own arrangement. Regardless, it's a very pretty tune.