Sunday, July 27, 2014

On Lab Rats

Our lesson this week is:  give the author a chance.

When I opened M. T. Anderson's Octavian Nothing and read the first pages, I wasn't planning to stick with this story of a strangely grown-up-sounding boy surrounded by scholars.  They drill him in Greek and Latin and violin lessons.  They weigh everything he consumes, then weigh again when he excretes.  They exact capricious punishments when he answers a question wrong. 

But young Octavian grew on me.  He and his mother were captured in Africa.  She was royalty.  He has no memory of the old continent.  And now they are essentially lab rats at the Novanglian College of Lucidity.  Well, privileged lab rats.  When the college throws a soiree, the mother acts the hostess.  She's royalty, after all, a shimmering beauty with whom every man would like to converse.   

When the benefactor of the institute dies, a rich young lord from England arrives to examine the premises with a mind to sponsoring these scholars.  He strikes up a flirtation with Octavian's mother and makes her an offer--with a boatload of catches. 

This is Boston, just before the American Revolution.  The colonists' rumble with discontent.  Oh, and fear, too.  They suspect the British may foment a slaves' uprising, whence masters' throats will be slit as they sleep soundly in their beds.

So, no more Greek and Latin for Octavian.  He might get too smart.

Then there is the Pox Party.  Whether for the cause of pure science, or to keep war and soldiers at arms' length, the scientists sequester themselves with a few friends (and their slaves), infect them with a "mild" strain of smallpox, promising to nurse them through it with every modern remedy at their disposal.  This, we are told, is far preferable to getting one's smallpox epidemic-style. They can all play whist and stage evening music salons while they break out in pustules together.

I won't give away any more.

Anyway, for a book that held all the promise of a financial statement, the story sure picked up.

Neither did it hurt to read it while I sat on a fine bench in the town square of one of those charming suburbs that I love so much.  The "village" was having sidewalk sales that day and the streets were full of slim ladies in their yoga pants, shopping bags swinging from their arms as they tried on shirts, or strode past the granite walls of the bank building.  Children played in decorative tufts of prairie grass.  Stroller wheels clattered on the sidewalk bricks.  A couple commuter trains clanged by.  And cicadas sang.

Every town should be like this.  We especially need a version where we don't all have to spend a million or so to buy a house there.

Now that I'm back to ordinary life, operating the ByeByeNesquik College of Recipe Experimentation, it's looks like the lab rats are in for a week of sandwiches.  The fanciest one is:


2 tubes (8 ounces each) refrigerated crescent roll dough
1-1/2 cups (6 ounces) shredded Swiss cheese
1/4 pound boneless fully cooked ham, cubed
2-1/4 cups chopped fresh broccoli
1 small onion, chopped
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon lemon juice

Unroll crescent roll dough and place triangles on a 12-in. pizza pan, forming a ring with pointed ends facing outer edge of pan and wide ends overlapping. Lightly press wide ends together.

In a large bowl, combine the remaining ingredients; spoon over wide ends of rolls. Fold points over filling and tuck under wide ends (filling will be visible).

Bake at 375° for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown. Yield: 6 servings at 440 calories each.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Cobb Salad of Books

I would just like to know how many Post-It Notes littered Michael Connelly's walls as he worked out the plot to The Brass Verdict. 

We introduced the hero, Mickey Haller, last week.   Remember the man doing all the lawyer homework?  Yes, well, as his movie producer case proceeds to trial, the reader may want to take few notes, just to keep track of the bribes and the double agents and the grainy photos of people with possibly fake mustaches and maybe even the detective that brings Mickey these photos and acts as if he's protecting Mickey from all the murders going around.

I don't know whether to admire an author that can assemble such a Mexican train of surprises, or worry that he has counted up all the plot twists in his competitors' books and vowed to outdo them.

The result is a lot of action swirling around people I didn't care a whole lot about.  But if gets you through a plane ride, well, job security for Mr. Connelly. 

The tossed-in feel of Brass Verdict isn't so much different than what we ate this week.  Some lady in Iowa took a simple piece of chicken and kept adding things.  When you do something like that, how do you know when to stop?  All I know is, I liked it better this week than the first time I fixed it.


4 bacon strips 
4 boneless skinless chicken breast halves (4 ounces each) 
1 tablespoon butter 
1/2 cup barbecue sauce 
3 green onions, chopped 
1 medium tomato, chopped 
1 cup (4 ounces) shredded cheddar cheese 

Cut bacon strips in half widthwise. In a large skillet, cook bacon over medium heat until cooked but not crisp. Remove to paper towels to drain.   (I used the precooked bacon that you warm up in the microwave.)

Drain drippings from skillet; cook chicken in butter over medium heat for 5-6 minutes on each side or until a thermometer reads 170°. 

Top each chicken breast with the barbecue sauce, green onions, tomato and two reserved bacon pieces; sprinkle with cheese. Cover and cook for 5 minutes or until cheese is melted. Yield: 4 servings, 320 calories each.  

After eating this delicious chicken, I opened the microwave the next day and found the bacon still sitting on its greasy paper towel.  

I wonder if Mr. Connelly found a few Post-It Notes he forgot to use in his book. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Big Bucks Homework

At my age, I should be beyond dreaming that I'll be a ballerina or an astronaut when I grow up.  But Michael Connelly's The Brass Verdict has got me imagining that I can be a dandy defense lawyer someday.

That may be a weakness in his story.

His protagonist, Mickey Haller, stepped away from his law practice for awhile.  Something about getting hooked on pills.  Then a colleague turns up murdered and Mickey ends up with the man's entire practice.  First item on the to-do list: defend a movie producer accused of a double murder.

Isn't a lawyer novel supposed to have a lot of leaning against the dark wood of the witness stand and popping surprise witnesses on the prosecutor?  In this story, I'm getting more about Mickey writing stuff on his legal pad, or telling his staff where to meet him for a working lunch. 

It also didn't help that, just before I got serious about digging into the book, I watched a movie about a man taking a dreadfully dangerous business trip.  A movie like that uses up all one's adrenaline.  However, in this case, I saved some for reading Connelly's novel.

But it's all rather procedural, a lot of carrying around files instead of running from guys with knives and bombs.

So, even though Mickey Haller's problems don't have me worried like a weak bladder in a spook alley, at least I'm dabbling in my lawyer fantasies.  Yes, I too could stay late at the office, drawing a time-and-action flowchart of the night of the murders, studying crime scene photographs with a magnifying glass.  This is just homework with big bucks attached to it.  I'm sure I could get up to speed on this.  Although I think I'd stumble big time trying to guess the prosecutor's strategy.

Now, if I stayed late at the office all the time, making those big bucks, I wouldn't have time to make big dinners, would I?  But I might be able to throw together:


I first tasted this at a restaurant called Tom + Chee, where they get creative with grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup (Ooh, another career idea!).   You can order up the basic sandwich, or you can go fancy and add some hummus, or even some macaroni and cheese. 

It's in-a-hurry simple:  Make a salad on your plate.  Besides greens and tomatoes, I think theirs included carrot chips, sliced mushrooms, maybe a few strips of bell pepper.  I'm pretty sure they threw some cucumber in there, too.

Next, make a grilled cheese sandwich.  Cut it up into about sixteen pieces, place it on top of the salad and you will never again feel the same about ordinary croutons.  

Pour on your favorite dressing.  I think French dressing is ideal.  It fits the tomato-soup theme and it looks pretty.

How handy it is, eating my grilled cheese sandwich with a fork.  Keeps me from staining my lawyer files   Kindle with buttery fingers. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Gettin' All Beachy

Pretend with me now:

You have set aside the laundry and the kitchen and messy garage.  You have left behind the big-box stores and the roundabouts and the doctor appointments.  You have traded it all for a tastefully decorated house, the best part of which is that you didn't have to decide where to put the little pots of decorative beach grass, or the artfully-placed conch shells, or the wall hangings that proclaim "At the Shore."  

Hopefully, this house is on a shady street in a sleepy town.  Hopefully, it has a settin' porch and no hurricanes to bother you while you sit out there.

What will you do with yourself?   I don't know.  Can you lift a heavy book?  Might you want to try Diana Gabaldon's Outlander Series?  It starts with The Outlander, wherein a World War II nurse visits Scotland with her husband and finds herself tossed back to 1743.  How will she hide all her 20th-century nursey knowledge?  How will she protect herself, all alone in the middle of a bunch of warrior-clansmen?  And how the heck does she get back to her dear modern-day husband?  How long might it take?  What will he think of her absence?  When she returns, might things get a little complicated?  Especially if she were pregnant?

But wait!  Before you get started, maybe you should make a little something to eat.  LAYERED PICNIC LOAVES won't take very long, and these sandwiches are supposed to sit in the fridge for a hour.  So assemble them, then read awhile, then take them off to a picnic, throw away the paper plates and read some more.  You might be up late tonight.  No, let me rephrase that: you will be up late.  (There's cow patties, but between married people.) 

2 unsliced loaves (1 pound each) Italian bread
1/4 cup olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons Italian seasoning, divided
1/2 pound deli roast beef
12 slices part-skim mozzarella cheese (1 ounce each)
1/4 tsp dried basil
3 medium tomatoes, thinly sliced
1/4 pound deli sliced ham
1 package (10 ounces) ready-to-serve salad greens
8 ounces thinly sliced deli chicken
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper

Cut loaves in half horizontally; hollow out tops and bottoms, leaving 1/2-in. shells (discard removed bread or save for another use).

Combine oil and garlic; brush inside bread shells. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning. Layer bottom of each loaf with a fourth of the roast beef, mozzarella, basil, tomatoes, ham, salad greens, and chicken. Repeat layers. Season with salt, pepper and remaining Italian seasoning.

Drizzle with remaining oil mixture if desired. Replace bread tops. Wrap tightly in plastic or pack back into bread bag. Refrigerate at least 1 hour before slicing. Yield: 2 loaves (6 servings each). 


Sunday, June 29, 2014

Give Me Some Connecticut Banality

This is a tale of missed opportunities.

Evidently, CHICKEN ORIENTAL SALAD is so good that if you don't hunt down the leftovers promptly, it will be too late.

2 chicken breast halves 
2 TB slivered almonds, toasted or not as desired* 
1/2 head cabbage, finely chopped, about 4 cups (I used a 16-oz. bag of coleslaw mix.)
1 pkg (3 oz.) Ramen oriental noodles, chicken flavor 
1 TB sugar 
1/2 cup vegetable oil 
1 tsp. salt 
1/4 tsp. pepper 
3 TB vinegar 
salad greens 
tomato wedges 

Cook chicken in small amount of water, covered, until tender, about 20 to 30 minutes. Dice to make 2 cups. 

Combine chicken with almonds, cabbage and uncooked noodles that have been broken up with envelope of seasonings; set aside. 

In glass jar combine sugar, oil, salt, pepper and vinegar; shake until blended. Pour over salad; toss. Add more salt and pepper as needed . Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or as long as 24 hours. Serve on crisp salad greens garnished with tomato wedges. Makes 8-10 servings, 205 - 165 calories each.

Over on the Book Pile, Bye-Bye Nesquik has tackled Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.  Maybe you caught the movie with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.  Or maybe you skipped it due to the R-rating.  

I'm betting the latter, so you will need me to tell you that Kate and Leo play April and Frank Wheeler, a suburban couple who look down on the banality of it all.   Leo hates his job in the city.  It is eight hours of looking busy, handing papers off to somebody else on the Fifteenth Floor.  Let Ordway deal with the Toledo problem.  

At home, a neighbor drops off plants for the yard and he has no idea what to do with them.  His wife beats back unhappiness by signing on with the community theater, but their play is so beset by amateur flubs that she plummets into a funk after opening night.  No matter how much Frank attempts to comfort her, April only wants him to "take your hands off me."   

Frank and April have friends, the kind of couple you go steady with just because they're your age and they live right down the road.  They need Shep and Milly--who else will play audience when Leo makes his speeches about all this banality?--and they despise them--"Honey, please tell them we can't go out later.  Say it's because of the babysitter or something."

Is that all there is in life?  

As the book jacket tells us, "they have always lived on the assumption that greatness is only just around the corner."

One night, Frank rides the train home from work and finds his moody April suddenly forgiving and happy.  She reveals a plan to inject meaning and zest into their lives.   Oh, yeah, I've had plans like that.  

I just want Frank and April to know that I would have loved to sample some of that Connecticut banality.  However, such things were always out of my reach, so I keep turning the pages of Yates' book, fascinated by the troubles of the unknowingly privileged. 

If you know the ending, please don't spoil it for me just yet. 

Credits: Managing Your Meals by Winifred Jardine.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Awarding Myself the Sceptre

It was almost Christmas time.  We had a little vacation time left for the year, and a little vacation money.

Chicago beckoned.  

We booked one of those little boutique hotels (thanks, Groupon), and found ourselves a short walk away from the marble and brass and holiday windows of the city's best stores. 

I don't know how we decided on lunch on the seventh floor of Macy's (formerly Marshall Fields'),  but there we were, and hungry.  And there it was, the Frango Cafe.

It jumped off the menu right at me, the Cobblestone Sandwich.  When it showed up and I began to eat, I made noises ladies shouldn't make in public.  I vowed to come back and eat it again.

Was it the second trip back, or the third?  Doesn't matter.  I grew covetous and proud as I chewed on that delicious bread.  I grew sure that I could make this sandwich at home. 

I had no idea how many tries it would take.  Mr. Nesquik, licking cinnamon off his lips, said I probably needed another research trip.  I took him up on the idea so fast, the wheels of my suitcase possibly left skid marks across the floor.

Up there on the seventh floor, I asked the waitress, "Do they do this?  Do they do that?"  She didn't know, but she sent the chef out, who explained things nicely.  (She also left out a couple key steps, but I caught on anyway.)

When I finally made the last refinement, the universe twanged.  The sandwich smelled right.  It looked right.  It felt right.  It tasted . . .  uh-oh, here we go again, making noises ladies shouldn't make in public.

May I present:


It's a lot like a Monte Cristo. Just in case they copyrighted the name, maybe I should call my version the Monte Kristen, ha!

1 egg 
2 TB milk 
¼ tsp. sugar 
dash of cinnamon
pinch of salt 
2 slices Cobblestone Bread (1 3/4 oz. each) *
1/2 TB lite mayonnaise 
2 thin slices Swiss or provolone cheese 
2-3 oz. deli-sliced turkey 
1½ slice bacon, cooked crisp

Whisk together the egg, milk, sugar, cinnamon and salt.  Set aside.
Spread mayonnaise on one side of one slice of bread. Dip the opposite side in french toast batter.  Place on a lightly buttered griddle.  Top with one slice cheese, half the turkey, the bacon, the remaining turkey, and remaining cheese. 

Dip "outside" of remaining bread slice in batter.  Top sandwich with undipped side of bread.  

Grill on medium heat. Enjoy!  About 730 calories, but so worth it. 


2 packages active dry yeast (4 1/2 tsp) 
3/4 cup warm water (105 to 115') 
2 cup lukewarm milk (scalded then cooled) 
3 TB sugar 
3 TB shortening 
1 TB salt 
7 to 8 cups flour 
2 TB water, divided 
2/3 cups packed brown sugar 
2 tsp. cinnamon 
Butter, melted. (1 TB) 

Dissolve yeast in warm water in large bowl. Stir in milk, sugar, shortening, salt and 4 cups of the flour. Beat until smooth. Mix in enough remaining flour to make dough easy to handle. Turn dough onto lightly floured surface; knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Place in greased bowl; turn greased side up. Cover; let rise in warm place until double, about 1 hour. (Dough is ready if indentation remains when touched.) 

Punch down dough; divide into halves. Roll each half into rectangle, 18x9 inches. Mix brown sugar and cinnamon; set aside. Sprinkle each rectangle with 1 TB of water, then spread half of cinnamon-sugar mixture on each rectangle. Roll up each rectangle into loaf. Pinch edge of dough into roll to seal well. Place loaves seam sides down in 2 greased loaf pans, 9x5x3 inches. Brush lightly with melted butter. Let rise until double, about 1 hour. 

Heat oven to 425'. Place loaves on low rack so that tops of pans are in center of oven. Pans should not touch each other or sides of oven. Bake until loaves are deep golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes. Immediately remove from pans.  Makes 2 loaves, enough to make sandwiches for a crowd, or eat yourself silly.  

Over on the Finished Book Pile, I can now say good-bye to the Patrick Melrose novels, in which unhappiness abounds.   We've already talked about them enough and we're ready for something different. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

I Can't Believe I Didn't Try Before

Curses!  Foiled again!

I'm dabbling in the art of reproducing something great I ate at a restaurant.  Been at it for months.  Been back to the Chicago restaurant so many times, they're starting to remember the odd-duck lady who dissects the food on her plate like just so much pinned frog.

There's a reason I like cookbooks and recipe sites.  Somebody else has tweaked the sauce, eaten the almost-rights and borne the suspense.  So why did I cast off into the uncharted seas of cookery?

Well, the memory of this menu item sticks to me like cat hair, which we all know never lets go.  Some people hear a band and they MUST snag concert tickets.  Some see a pair of spike heels and they MUST own them.

I just MUST.

I thought I would have results to share with you tonight, but I'm still not satisfied.  My motto seems to be "Wait!  Let me try it one more time."  My family rolls their eyes so much, they risk permanently staring at their pre-frontal cortices.

At least they eat all the versions I feed them.  "Mom, it's fine.  This is really good."

"No, it's not quite . . .  not quite right yet."

Therefore, what you get tonight is:

So easy, I can't believe I didn't attempt this before. 

16 ounces milk chocolate chips 
2 tablespoons shortening 
1 pound fresh strawberries with leaves 

In microwave, melt the chocolate and shortening, stirring occasionally until smooth. 

Insert toothpicks in strawberry leaves.  Holding by the toothpick, dip the strawberries into the chocolate mixture. Turn the strawberries upside down and insert the toothpick into styrofoam for the chocolate to cool. (I just held them by their leaves and let them cool on a wax-paper-lined cookie sheet.  I chilled them for 20-30 minutes.  Then they lifted off the wax paper easily.)    38 calories per medium berry, probably more for large ones.  And no fancy white drizzles in my kitchen.  I have never mastered drizzling.

Still reading Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels.  After finishing Some Hope, I caught up to where I originally started in Mother's Milk.  

You may recall young Robert, son of Patrick, who describes his birth.   Father Patrick has taken his young family to dwell at his mother's estate in the south of France, which Patrick will not inherit because Mummy has dedicated the house to the Transpersonal Foundation, offering it as a haven where people might "connect."  No one knows what they are connecting with. 

The charm of Mother's Milk  is in seeing everything from little Robert's height.  Puzzled by adult conversations, he escapes to stare into the fish pond.  Then one of the people trying to "connect" happens along and tries to convince him to listen to the fish which "bring us messages from the depths." 

Good luck, little Robert, figuring out these adults.