Stuff and Nonsense: November 2013


Second Thanksgiving

A few weeks ago, I bought a case of satsuma mandarins from The Fruit Company for The Husband. Alas, they weren't very good satsumas -- watery and bland, sayeth The Husband -- and have been lurking in the basement since the third failed attempt to find a "good" one in the box.

I was loathe to compost the satsumas, because even if they weren't good for straight out noshing, surely they might be good for cooking? I had dreams of satsuma-glazed mini bundt cakes and satsuma-roasted chicken thighs, but those dreams never got off the ground.

And then it was Thanksgiving and, while we were going to my parents, I picked up a turkey for us because THANKSGIVING. I recalled that roasting whole chickens on beds of thickly sliced red onion made for phenomenal chicken. So why not satsumas under the turkey? Because, you know, alliums and citrus are so similar ...

I took a bunch of satsumas, plus a few oranges that had been malingering in the produce drawer, and trimmed a thin slice off opposite sides so they would lay flat(tish) in the roasting pan. Then I halved them and arranged them in the pan, packing them as closely as I could.


Roaster lined with Citrus

I whizzed some of the citrus trimmings 'round in my food processor until they were well chopped, then mixed in four tablespoons softened unsalted butter, and one teaspoon Bell's Seasoning. I gently slid the butter mixture between the turkey breast meat and skin. The excess butter mixture was smeared all over the outside of the turkey and then I sprinkled it with a teaspoon of sea salt.

Citrus Peel

Citrus Turkey

I stuffed the turkey cavity with three or four quartered satsumas -- some didn't fit, so I just tucked those pieces in any gaps in the orange carpet at the bottom of the roasting pan -- and roasted the turkey at 325F°, uncovered, for about four hours.

Then I remove the turkey from the oven, tented it with foil, and allowed it to rest for fifteen minutes while I mashed potatoes and microwaved vegetables.

Our Thanksgiving

The roasted turkey was fragrant, moist, and tender without being overwhelmingly citrus-y. If I ever have satsuma troubles again, I will certainly use this method to dispose of them!


Mmm, Brisket In My Slow Cooker

My dad's mom was never much of a drinker, but she always had a bottle of Manischewitz Concord Grape on hand. Indeed, I think it was the only wine I ever saw her drink. My grandmother has been on my mind a lot lately so, when I thought about making a brisket earlier this week, I thought about Manischewitz.

Why brisket? I can't precisely say. A vague craving for pot roast couple with too much talk about slow cooker barbecue with some co-workers followed by a brief, intense infatuation with Joan Nathan's Jewish Cooking in America ... and then I saw brisket was on sale?

The Internet is full of ways to slow cook brisket and many of the recipes I found used ingredients like chili sauce and onion soup mix. I took the "best bits" from those recipes and spun them to suit my own taste preferences. Heinz balsamic ketchup for chili sauce, for example, because I wanted lots of tang but no heat. Lots of onion and garlic, because alliums make everything better. And Manischewitz Concord Grape, for grandma.

Slow Cooker Brisket
Manischewitz for the win!
The piece of brisket I bought was slightly too large for my slow cooker so I halved it and arranged the two pieces, edges overlapping, at the bottom of the insert.

(As with any roast, it's important to cook the meat fat side up so that the fat, as it renders, bastes the meat).

Wednesday's Supper
O, beautiful onions! Beautiful brisket!
Tangy Slow Cooker Brisket

3 - 4 lb brisket, flat cut
4 large cloves garlic, sliced thickly
1 large red onion, sliced thickly
1 envelope Lipton Recipe Secrets Onion
8 oz Heinz Ketchup Blended with Balsamic Vinegar
5 oz Manischewitz Concord Grape

Lay onion and garlic at bottom of slow cooker insert. Top with brisket, fat side up.

Mix together soup mix, ketchup, and wine. Pour over brisket. Cover and cook on LOW for 10 hours.

Slow Cooker Brisket
Looking so fine!
I served the brisket with chive-mashed potatoes and garlicky green beans. The potatoes were a complete cheat as they were leftover from work's Thanksgiving dinner. I reheated them in the microwave with milk and butter and then mixed in a liberal amount of Penzeys dehydrated chopped chives.

The garlicky green beans are pretty much a supper time standby. I take a bag of fresh steam-in-bag ones, poke holes to let the steam out, and then use those holes to poke slivers of sliced garlic cloves into the bag. Shake everything about to distribute the garlic and then microwave as directed. Season the cooked beans with a drizzle of olive oil and some black pepper. We can easily consume a 12 oz bag between us at one meal ... although I admit I probably eat more than my fair share of these lovely beans.


Wordless Wednesday: A Trip to the Vet's

Catzilla at the vet's. She thinks the sink makes her invisible.

Realizing the sink was a trap, she tried to get in the cabinets.


Top 10 Tuesday: Thankful Things

It's Thanksgiving in America soon so, for this week's Top Ten Tuesday, we're talking about the ten things we're thankful for. Shockingly, my list is mostly non-bookish!


The Best Intentions by Candice Hern

She knew it was wrong, but she could not help it. He was just about the most wonderful man she'd ever met.
She had to go careening into a footman and fall on her bum in front of this perfect man.
What a silly cow she was for believing the magic of the evening could last.
She wanted to die.

Recently, I noticed many of Candice Hern's older Signet Regency romances have been repackaged with rather attractive covers and I have been sorely tempted to purchase them. I am, however, mercilessly miserly these days, and have resorted to getting the much less attractive 1990s mass market paperbacks from the library. And, in the case of The Best Intentions, a good thing, too, because I'd be rather angry to have spent $8.09 on this ... piffle.

Two sisters -- Charlotte, the Hot Older Widow, and Hannah, the Awkward Nerdy Chit -- are visiting with the Earl of Strickland's family. A widower, the (somewhat starchy) Earl is in want of a wife and mother for his two young daughters. Undoubtedly, Charlotte would make a fine match. But, of course, the Earl finds that the more time he spends with Hannah, the more he enjoys her awkward, nerdy charms. She's funny, smart, has fine eyes and clearly likes his daughters. And his daughters clearly like her back. Indeed, the Earl finds he only thinks about Hot Charlotte when she's in front of him, all husky whispers and practiced, womanly charm ...

And, you know, I would have been fine with Awkward Nerdy Chit marries Starchy Earl and destarchifies him, but the difference in ages rather ruined the sweetness of their budding romance for me. Also, the sudden introduction of the Elopement Misunderstanding at the end of the book just added unnecessary drama as it did nothing to move the plot along that couldn't have been done without it. I think I was supposed to find it funny and sweet, but it just made me regret reading that far.

While I've read other Regencies by Hern and enjoyed them (seriously, she's much better than this), The Best Intentions was a bitter disappointment.

The Best Intentions by Candice Hern (Signet, 1999)


High Rising by Angela Thirkell

It was nearly dark when Laura crossed the green and walked down the willow avenue beside the brook. It was a lonely walk, and had a slightly haunted reputation, which occasionally caused one of Mr. Knox's maids to have hysterics and give notice. But, being local girls, their mothers usually made them take it back. At the far end stood the Knoxes' house, lonely among the water-meadows, often surrounded by thick white mists, a little sinister, but Laura was not imaginative except in the matter of plot and incident.

High Rising is the first of Thirkell's Barsetshire novels and centers around Laura Morland, a widow and author of popular thrillers, and her circle of friends. Her neighbor and dear friend, George Knox, has recently taken on a secretary, Miss Grey ("The Incubus"), and Laura's other friends are dead cert Grey means to get her claws into Knox and make him marry her ... but surely Laura can do something about that!

Overall, an enjoyable romp. Not only is Laura a well-wrought protagonist, but Thirkell has padded her novel with a whole crew of wonderful secondary characters -- including Laura's train-obsessed young son, Tony, and her devoted secretary, Miss Todd. Alas The Incubus, the villain of the piece, was probably the most weakly rendered character and it was difficult for me to dislike her as much as I was supposed to. Instead, I found myself disliking all the other characters for their willingness to close rank against her. Don't get me wrong, The Incubus was a wicked girl ... I just don't know why and the casual dismissal of her behavior ("neurotic," "wonky," and "a bad egg") just frustrated me.

Also High Rising, even more so than Wild Strawberries, is clearly a product of the 1930s and there's so much casual racism in it (seriously, it all feels entirely off-hand and everyday) that I found some passages hard going. And so, as enjoyable as I found the novel overall, I am rather reluctant to pick up another Barsetshire novel any time soon. Maybe some Monica Dickens? It's been awhile ...

High Rising by Angela Thirkell (Virago Press, 2012)


Improv Challenge: Orange & Cardamom

It's time for the monthly Improv Cooking Challenge! This month we showcase orange and cardamom. Because baking has suddenly become something that makes me go "meh," I decided to take a savory approach and make a marinade, butter, and glaze for chicken thighs. Orange and honey are natural companions to chicken, so adding cardamom to the mix didn't seem that risky.

Orange-Cardamom Roast Chicken Thighs

I used bone-in, skin-on thighs for this recipe simply because that's my taste preference. As thighs can be pretty fatty, I trimmed them well and left only a small patch of skin on the "top" of the thigh. You could use boneless skinless chicken thighs, but then you'll have to skip the cardamom-orange butter and all your cooking times will be different.

And, by all means, omit the crushing and biffing by using ready-ground cardamom. The pods were just what I had on hand. I don't know how much ground cardamom you'd need, though, so be prepared to experiment. (Not as if this entire post wasn't one long, probably mad, experiment).
Cardamom-Orange Marinade
Juice of half orange
12 whole white cardamom pods
1 tbsp honey
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp sea salt
½ tsp black pepper
4 chicken thighs, well trimmed

Gently crush the cardamom pods to release the seeds. Sandwich seeds between parchment paper and lightly biff with a meat mallet until seeds are a bit crushed. Whisk together cardamom and all other ingredients (except thighs, obviously). Pour over chicken thighs and marinate for four hours or so.

Marinading Chicken Thighs

Meanwhile combine ingredients for:

Cardamom-Orange Butter
1 tbsp butter, softened
zest of half orange
4 whole white cardamom pods, crushed and biffed

When you're ready to cook your chicken, remove them from the marinade and preheat the oven to 450F°

Gently slide fingers between chicken skin and meat to loosen skin. Rub butter over thigh meat under skin. Sprinkle skin with salt and pepper, if desired. Roast, uncovered, for 30 minutes, basting with pan juices every 10 minutes or so.

Marinaded Chicken Thighs

Roast Chicken Thighs

Serve with rice pilaf and broccoli blend.
Overall, I think my orange-cardamom chicken was mostly successful, but adding more cardamom to the marinade and soaking the thighs longer might have added even more flavor. They were orangey, yes, but the cardamom flavor was very faint. Beautifully fragrant, though. Some of that could be because I used white cardamom pods, which have a milder, more floral flavor than green cardamom?


Wordless Wednesday: Leaves

Faffing about with my camera phone, trying to be artsy ... just like everyone else :)


Top 10 Tuesday: Top Ten Books I'd Recommend To X

This week, for Top Ten Tuesday, we're creating lists of recommendations for a certain person or kind of person. Based on conversations I've recently had with a few friends, I've created a list of books I would recommend to people who are already sick of Christmas -- not "I hate Christmas" books, but quirky books that put a slightly different spin on the holiday:
  1. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson
  2. Dave Cooks the Turkey by Stuart McLean (novella)
  3. The Dreaded Feast: Writers on Enduring the Holidays ed. by Michelle Clarke and Taylor Plimpton
  4. Hercule Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie
  5. Hogfather by Terry Pratchett
  6. Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris
  7. The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story by Lemony Snicket & Lisa Brown
  8. Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien
  9. Skipping Christmas: Christmas with The Kranks by John Grisham
  10. The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror by Christopher Moore
(It's not that we hate Christmas -- we're the sort of people who are bound to love any holiday that involves significant amounts of food and merry-making -- we're just not prepared to deal with it before December 1 and it's everywhere already).


Earth Girl by Janet Edwards

I was Jarra, a Military kid, trained in unarmed combat. A history lecturer and twenty-nine other history students couldn't scare me. I stepped into the portal and a new identity.

Centuries ago, thanks to the development of portal technology, humanity jumped to the stars. Earth became a graveyard, a museum, a-nice-place-to-visit-but-I-wouldn't-want-to-live-there. Unfortunately, some humans, born with a genetic deficiency which made off-planet portalling impossible for them, had to remain on Earth. They might be lucky and have children who, lacking the deficiency, might leave Earth. And unlucky portal-using parents might find their children, bearing the deficiency, would have to be sent to Earth at birth ...

Ape. Throwback. Nean. Jarra knows all the words for what she is, but she knows she's more than that. She's as good as any off-planet eighteen-year-old and she burns to prove it. Given a chance to study Pre-History (that's our today) during her Foundation Year, Jarra opts to study on Earth (as she must because DEATH) with an off-world university. She'll lie to everyone (except the university) about who/what she is, dazzle her classmates with her superior archaeological skills, and then destroy all their presumptions about "apes" by revealing who she is and laughing in their faces.

Or something like that. Trouble is, Jarra grows to like and respect her classmates. And the work they're doing is really compelling. But how can she tell them what she is without destroying the tentative trust and friendship they've built?

In addition to all the quality friendship and relationship building drama Edwards has packed into Earth Girl, her hard SF elements are fab. Earth Girl is as much about Jarra getting her nerd on as it is about her coming to grip with what she is. What with ruined New York, domes, impact suits, sleds, stasis boxes, hover belts, tag guns ... Edwards has built a future Earth I'd want to live in.

While I really liked Earth Girl's cover art -- rather metaphorical, mythological, and pre-Raphealite kind of vibe -- I do think it does the novel a disservice as it makes Jarra looked like a sad, brooding waif. There's also nothing about it to suggest the novel is full of hard SF elements. That said, I felt the same way about Beth Revis's Across the Universe trilogy and it won't stay on the library shelves so clearly publishers know who they are marketing to. It's just not me.

As a teen, I read a lot (perhaps too much?) of Elizabeth Moon and CJ Cherryh and there's a duology by Anne Mason I will cherish in my heart forever. So I've grown to expect "good" science fiction covers will have women in space suits (or Military-esque uniforms) and space ships and science-y stuff and shizzle. Not mopey barefoot girls in cotton summer dresses.

Anyway, the sequel should be coming out in April and I can't wait.

Earth Girl by Janet Edwards (Pyr, 2013)


Easy Cheesy Salsa Chicken

I threw this together the other night when I realized there was more cheese in the cheese drawer than there was actually "proper food" in the rest of the fridge ... not an unusual occurrence in this household, you know. Probably I should be embarrassed, but ever since we started watching Pushing Daisies, I've thought this every time I opened our fridge:

If you haven't seen Pushing Daisies (get thee to Netflix), let me just say that two of the characters really love cheese. So much so that their fridge contains nothing but cheese and their niece spendt years thinking that's all the appliance was for and was, indeed, called a "cheese box."

While, for all my talk of cheese, this isn't a super-cheesy dish, it is quite fast and satisfying. We always have extra beans and salsa in the cupboard, because you never know when you'll need them. I guess it's like other people's need to always have an extra jar of peanut butter jar on hand.

Cheesy Salsa Chicken

Cheesy Salsa Chicken
Serves 2 generously

2 boneless skinless chicken breasts, pounded flattish
2 Tbsp taco seasoning [Penzeys Arizona Dreaming]
½ cup low sodium black beans, drained and rinsed
½ cup frozen fire-roasted corn, thawed
½ cup garlicky salsa [Green Mountain Gringo Roasted Garlic Salsa]
2 oz shredded cheddar[Cabot Seriously Sharp]

Rub breasts with seasoning blend. Cook in a hot oven-safe skillet for about 5 minutes per side or until breasts are a lovely brown on each side and cooked through.

Pour black beans, corn, and salsa over the chicken and top with cheese. Pop skillet into the oven and broil until the cheese is bubbly and golden.

Serve topped with sour cream and more salsa, if desired.
You could serve this over rice, if you were so minded, but it's pretty filling on its own.


Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

Two boys kissing. You know what this means.
For us, it was a secret gesture. Secret because we were afraid. Secret because we were ashamed. Secret because it was a story that nobody was telling.
But what power it had.

Narrated in first person plural by the men who died during the AIDS crisis, this is ostensibly a novel about two boys kissing in an attempt to set the world's record. But it is also about other boys -- some in relationships, some alone, some looking for themselves, some looking for belonging. And, of course, it is about the dead, because we cannot talk about how we got to be here without talking about where we came from.

It is good to look at the world and know that, no matter how resistant individuals may be, humanity goes forward and the world gets better, bit by bit. But it is also sometimes hard to look at the changes that have happened (just in my lifetime!) and not think how much better it might yet be if so many people had not died.

It took me a month to finish David Levithan's Two Boys Kissing. Not because it is a lengthy novel, but because every time I read a bit of it I burst into tears. The day I decided to just power through and finish the damned beautiful thing, I cried so much that I gave myself a tension headache and chapped my nose.

It's good. Beautiful, poetic, bittersweet. It begs to be read aloud. Indeed, the rhythm and cadence of narration so put me in mind of Kushner's Angels in America that I checked a copy of the HBO special out from the library ... but haven't been able to watch it yet. Because CRYING. Dammit.

Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013)


Eating the Alphabet: V is for Vanilla Beans

Vanilla beans. November's Eating the Alphabet Challenge letters are U, V, and/or W, and I knew I just had to use vanilla beans. I'd bought a tube of them at Penzeys last Christmas (eek) with the intent of making some kind of bourbon-soaked vanilla bean-enriched cake for my dad, but that never happened and I've been "stuck" with them ever since.

I really wanted to do something simple but savory with the vanilla beans. I found a recipe for "Slow-Cooked Chicken with Sauteed Mushrooms and Vanilla" in an old Country Living and a recipe for vanilla-infused "Savory Pork Tenderloin" on the Nielsen-Massey site so I knew meat and vanilla could go together. I didn't want to make those particular recipes, however, because they served too many. I knew The Husband would turn his nose up at savory vanilla anything and I didn't want to eat pork tenderloin all week for lunch ... especially if it didn't turn out very well!

So I decided to "cheat" and go the easy way. I'd poach two boneless skinless chicken breasts in a vanilla-infused bath and see what that did. If it was good, yay. If not very good, then it could be drowned in curry sauce. And, if it was very bad, the cats would still like it!

Poaching w/ Coconut Milk & Vanilla
Coconut milk, vanilla bean, sea salt, white pepper
As the chicken poached, the vanilla-milk-broth bath became more and more aromatic -- so much so that I began to worry the chicken would come out tasting like a vanilla-scented candle. Well, I needn't have worried as the poached chicken smelled and tasted only vaguely of vanilla. Decidedly chicken, with a faint, sweet note of vanilla. Actually, kind of disappointing. Perhaps I should have used two beans? Or omitted the chicken broth? Or just be thankful it wasn't more strongly vanilla?

The dressing, while definitely stronger tasting than the chicken, was still only mildly vanilla. Very aromatic, mind you, as the whole dining room seemed to smell of it after I dressed the salad. Very tasty, too. Interestingly, the flavor of the dressing was much more pronounced on the greens than on the chicken. I think it might be nice tossed with cantaloupe and blueberries.

Vanilla-Scented Poached Chicken Salad
Needs. Moar. Flavor.
Honestly, this salad is the most disappointing dish I've made for the Eating the Alphabet Challenge. It was certainly edible and the cats did not get any, but as I ate it I kept wishing I knew how to make it better.
Vanilla-Scented Chicken Over Greens

2 boneless skinless chicken breasts, well trimmed
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, seeds scraped [Penzeys Madagascar]
1 tsp sea salt
½ tsp white pepper
8 oz fat-free low-sodium chicken broth [Pacific Organic]
13.5 oz can coconut milk [Goya -- not recommended]

To a medium-sized pot add chicken broth, coconut milk, vanilla seeds and pod, white pepper, and salt. Give it a stir. Add chicken.

Bring pot, uncovered, to boil. Reduce heat. Cover and simmer for 12-14 minutes or until chicken is tender and no longer pink. Drain chicken. Thinly slice. Serve atop salad greens with a drizzle of vanilla balsamic and grind of fresh black pepper.
Vanilla Balsamic Vinaigrette

1 Tbsp flax seed oil [Barlean's]
1 Tbsp white balsamic
1 tsp vanilla [Penzeys Mexican Vanilla]
pinch each white pepper and sea salt

In a small bowl, whisk together balsamic, vanilla, salt and pepper. While still whisking, slowly drizzle in oil until oil and vinegar are well combined.
I used whole fat coconut milk in the poaching liquid, because I prefer the flavor and the chicken wasn't going to absorb much, if any, of the milk, but feel free to use light coconut milk or cow's milk. I do not recommend the Goya coconut milk, however, as it seemed excessively watery. Trader Joe's and Whole Foods' house brands are much better.

Also, olive oil would be fine in the vinaigrette -- I just prefer the lightness and nuttiness of flax seed oil.


"They went with songs to the battle ..."

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncountered:
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

~ excerpted from "For the Fallen" by Laurence Binyon


Wordless Wednesday: Moo, A Cow

Holstein @ Kellogg Dairy Center, UCONN.


The House at World’s End by Monica Dickens

With their father off sailing around the world and their mother hospitalized after their house burns down, Tom, Carrie, Em, and Michael are thrust upon their grudging Aunt Valentina and Uncle Rudolph. All is misery until Uncle Rudolph takes everyone for a picnic in the country. Inspired by the World's End, a ramshackle wreck of a building, the children hatch a plan to live there free of their Aunt and Uncle and, after rather less finagling than you'd expect, off they go.

What was the point of making a bed if you were going to sleep in it that night? Why brush your hair if you were going out into the wind? ... Why hurry home from a ride, or from watching squirrels in the woods, or sliding on the frozen duck pond, just because it happened to be the time that ordinary dull people had their supper?

Once freed from their probably-well-meaning-but-annoyingly-boorish adults, the children have many adventures – but this is a slim novel so I can't really tell you about them without giving everything away! Suffice to say that, if you grew up devouring stories like The Trolley Car Family or Swallows and Amazons, I think you'll really like The House at World's End. It's charming and rather sweet, with lots of animals and a strong sense of morality.

That said, I rather disliked the father for leaving his family to gallivant across the ocean. Yes, his family was in fine fettle and his house not burnt down at the time of sailing, but to leave your wife and four children alone to fend for themselves for so long for your own selfish pleasure? Why be a father? Why be married at all? (I know, I know ... novels like this only work with the parents out of the picture and Dead Dad isn't fun).

Also, I read The House at World's End the same week I listened to James Herriot's Cat Stories and all the animal love bled together enough that I kept trying to set the novel in 1940s Darrowby, despite Dickens' indication it is set in New England.

The House at World's End by Monica Dickens (Doubleday, 1970)


James Herriot’s Cat Stories by James Herriot

I grew up watching All Creatures Great and Small on PBS and, when I was old enough to find my way around the adult nonfiction stacks, I devoured all of the books -- including The Best of James Herriot with its lovely illustrations and descriptions. Even now, I occasionally feel a need to revisit Darrowby by watching a few favorite episodes or skimming one of Herriot's children's books. So it should be now surprise then that, when selecting audiobooks to listen to on our trip to New Hampshire, I chose James Herriot's Cat Stories.

The stories are all read by Christopher Timothy, the actor who played James Herriot in the long-running television series, and listening to him is like falling into a warm, cozy bed of familiarity. Alas, the stories themselves are not so cozy, dealing as they do with the realities of feline life in the Dales. There’s love and great joy, but also sadness and death. The last disc, in particular, seemed heavy on pathos and I actually found myself crying in the car. Yes, I am a big softie.

James Herriot's Cat Stories written by James Herriot [James Alfred Wight] & read by Christopher Timothy (Audio Renaissance, 1994)