Friday, December 7, 2012

Locatopia

I keep picking up books about local eating. Don't think I've gone all farmer's-market-&-organic or anything. I still love me some food straight out of plastic-y wrappings, and the sweeter the better.

But I also must have a soft spot for dipping into the world of people who get all misty over pastoral scenery, who love to dig in the deep black dirt and make tasty dinners from the carrots and kohlrabi that they grew themselves. Yep, kids who grew up in the suburbs are spending their summers out on the farm, and loving it. As for me, I'm sitting safely in the suburbs, reading about it, via Jonah Raskin's Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating, and Drinking Wine in California.

Raskin's memoir covers a year in Sonoma County, California, where he hunts down the top organic farmers and visits the San Francisco restaurants that buy the farmers' boutique produce.

And you understand, don't you, that we aren't talking about the sunburnt sort of farm folks who are missing fingers from a long-ago accident with the combine? No, Raskin's farmers wear scruffy beards. Or long skirts, as the case may be. They discuss literature and wine. They smoke pot. And they occupy one of the most beautiful valleys on this planet.

Also one of the most expensive. Yeah, Raskin glossed very lightly over that part. I know somebody who considered moving to Santa Rosa, California, not too far from Sonoma. When she mentioned house prices, all of us in the room gasped in sympathy. And these were ladies accustomed to Chicago prices.

Raskin's farm world sounds so utopian. Does it really work as perfectly as Raskin tells it? Are the market days on the community square truly the bliss-fests that he describes? Do these anti-private-property, green-pepper-growers really have all the answers? Is this life within the grasp of the Wal-Mart set?

If these questions tire out your brain, maybe you need to eat something tastier than an organic tomato and far less naughty than Sonoma-grown pot. So let's talk about EASY FUDGE This is for people too lazy to make real fudge. I say, own your laziness and mix in a large bowl:

1 7-oz. Hershey bar, broken up
18 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 14-oz. Jar marshmallow creme
1 TB. vanilla
Set aside.

Mix in a sauce pan:
1 12-oz. can evaporated milk
four and a half cups sugar
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup margarine

Bring to a boil; cook 6-8 minutes. Add to ingredients in bowl. Mix until blended. Pour into buttered 15x10-in. jelly roll pan.

Try not to eat too much of it yourself.(This will be hard.)

Monday, December 3, 2012

King, Commoners and English Majors

It seems like easy pickin's.

You want to write a good book? One with tried and true drama? Steal your story from somebody else, somebody who won't care. Say, Homer, who wrote that Iliad thing a few years back.

This is what David Malouf attempted in Ransom. Myself, I never got the Greeks. If they had a bad day, they felt honor-bound to gouge out an eye or two. So I had a hard time warming up to Ransom's formal and honor-bound Priam and Achilles and the rest. That is, until King Priam's puzzling quest brings a humble cart-driver into the story. Then the story comes alive for me as king and commoner (with an endearing habit of rubbing his nose) come together, sizing each other up. The cart-driver nudges the King into his world, inviting him to partake of pleasures as simple as cooling his toes in a stream.

It's a middling OK story, no cow patties.

Next up, we have Working Stiff's Manifesto by Iain Levison. Levison spent $40,000 getting a degree in English, and now he can't find a job. Resorting to the lowest and dirtiest work in the land, he scrapes together a living by boarding a fishing boat in Alaska and answering ads that herd the unsuspecting into multi-level marketing schemes. Meanwhile, he tells tales on his roommate, who aims to break into film-making. If Levison's book weren't so funny, it would be depressing as all get-out.

Makes me glad to be a housewife, whose hardest job is planning what to feed the crowd that came to my house Thanksgiving week. There was pumpkin pie, of course, but we had to have other pies, too, for novelty's sake. So we added Chocolate Mallow Pie to the menu. Basically, it was several kinds of candy/sweet stuff thrown together, as if the inventor couldn't decide between his/her vices.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

How to Kill a Reading Habit

You would not think a reader such as I could get out of the habit. You would not think anything could come between me and that feeling of turning the next page, eager to see what might happen to the nearly-blind boy who cocks his head at the shadows standing before him. You'd think I would love an author who planted me right there in that West Virginia town where I could feel the charge in the air of the oncoming storm, where I could taste the slice of birthday cake, where I could sit in on the arguments during a slow afternoon at the town diner.

But I don't know. A lot got in the way.

Busy life, maybe? Don't tell me I'm not all that busy compared to you. I already know it. Still, life has me by the tail. Every time I turn around, the laundry/dishes/groceries that just got done have to be done again. And people must be listened to and not ignored in favor of finding out what happened in some fictional West Virginia town.

Too much excitement killed the reading, maybe? Who needs book romance when we've got the real thing going on right under our noses, and the party in question appears on Facebook, where I can check out his mission pictures, his last birthday cake, his goofball friends. Don't make me admit how much time I spend at this--oh my!

And speaking of drama, what can I care about some half-blind boy when very real drama escalates all around me? We're talking election time, people. I like my guy, but does anybody else like him? Do enough anybody elses like him? Instead of opening some library book, I'm staring at my favorite news magazines and political blogs.

And speaking of blogs, I'm addicted to them. If the choice is between the nearly-blind boy and what Mormons think of the new missionary ages, I'm over at the place where Mormon moms and dads are saying, "Wow, this changes everything."

Yep, blogs are a big culprit. They are like intravenous feeding, a constant supply of new and interesting information. Except when there are no new posts. And then it's like "Whaa? Where's my instant gratification???" When I get in this state, it's hard to remember that I already have something to read. It's called a book, remember?

So I just kept putting off the nearly-blind boy until the library wanted the book back. Not to worry though, his story was available through electronic checkout. There it was, on my phone, easy reading to take along while the pharmacy counted my pills, not to mention how handy it was when the husband wanted the bedroom lights off for the night. But somehow, electronic reading never felt as urgent as a real book that had to be driven back to the return slot.

But what finally killed it off was a long and detailed cow patty that just wouldn't let up. It circled round and round poetically, as if we couldn't get the point that the neighbor kid has been hankering for the nearly-blind boy's sister all these years. Really, just send them behind the garage, leaving out all the anatomical details thank you, and we'll get the picture, yes we will.

I think what we had on our hands here was simply a dull book. Yep, that'll kill off a reading habit.

Since discarding this lemon, I've read two more books in less than a week. One was only a middling challenge to work through and the other, I couldn't leave alone. It kept me up late last night, leaving me an addled, unproductive mess today. Oh, but it was worth it.

Now, being addled and unproductive, the only thing I could manage to cook today was Hot Spiced Cider. I had bigger ambitions, but too bad for them.

I never found orange extract or whole allspice, but it hardly mattered because a certain young fellow at my house tonight loved this stuff, and it's been hard to get him to eat anything but candy or chips for months now.

We'll talk about those two books next time. But gotta get to bed now, so tomorrow is not such a loser day like today was.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

On Going Places

Let's talk going places.

I think I got into the habit early. My dad left home twice a day to deliver his eggs and if I could talk him in to taking me along, it was a glorious reprieve from chores and boredom.

When I got married, my husband would suit up for a trip to the hardware store and Wal-Mart. I was always ready to ride along. (My fascination with the hardware store died pretty early, though I'm still up for a Wal-Mart run or two).

On today's Finished Book Pile we have stories of people going places. Mack in Ron Carlson's Signal heads out on a camping trip in the Wyoming mountains.

Upon his father's death, Mack inherited his family's Wyoming ranch. Before long, the ranch was in trouble. It threatens to slip right out of his hands unless he can come up with a few thousand dollars. Mack turns to shady dealings hoping to raise the money that will fix his troubles.

In fact, there's more to this camping trip than admiring nature. Mack is up to something suspicious out there in the wilderness. He brings his ex-wife along; I don't know why, unless it's to provide a damsel-in-distress element. But they hike deep into the range lands, turn a corner and -- uh-oh! -- run into the downside of shady dealings.

Next up, we have The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews, a story that unfolds over a road trip from Manitoba (?) to Twenty-Nine Palms, California.

The blurb on the jacket promised a story of almost unbearable quirkiness, but I liked the characters right away. The narrator is a slacker girl returning from Paris to care for her sister's children. The waiflike sister has been in and out of mental hospitals her entire life.

So Miss Slacker, the niece and the nephew set out on a road trip to find the childrens' father.

By the time my bookmark moved to the meaty middle of the book, some of that quirkiness wore on my nerves. The purple-haired niece is almost a cartoon, witty beyond what any 11-year-old could sustain, never mind her strange upbringing. And the slacker girl--bless her heart for all the times she's come to her sister's aid--is too slackardly to finish many of her sentences. The author tries to paint a portrait of two children in pain, but for many, many miles of their road trip, the quirks clutter the picture.

In the end, however, I was glad I stuck with it.

Plenty of language cow patties.

Last up, we have a story that goes nowhere. Bloodroot by Amy Greene is set in Appalachia. Normally, I'm all over books about Appalachia. It's one of my favorite road-trip destinations and, if I can't get there in person, a juicy book about mountain people will hold me over.

The story never gets off the ground until about a hundred pages in and even then, every character, every scene feels contrived. That the book garnered gushing reviews leaves me baffled. I gave up on it just this afternoon, and petted my new kitten instead.

As for your recipe, you can try STIR-FRY CHICKEN FAJITAS:

5 TB vegetable oil
1/4 cup lime juice
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/8 tsp. cayenne
1 lb. skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut into thin strips
1 large red bell pepper, cut into thin strips
1 large yellow bell pepper, cut into thin strips
1 large green pepper, cut into thin strips
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 tsp. pepper

1. In a glass dish, mix together 2 TB oil, the lime juice, cumin and cayenne. Add chicken and toss to coat completely with marinade. Marinate chicken in refrigerator 1 to 2 hours for extra flavor, it time allows.
2. In a wok or skillet, heat 1 TB oil until very hot. Add chicken with marinade and stir-fry over high heat until chicken is white throughout, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove to a plate.
3. Add remaining 2 TB oil to wok and heat until very hot. Add peppers, onion, and garlic; stir-fry until crisp-tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Return chicken to wok and season with pepper. Toss until heated through, about 1 minute. Serves 6 @ 235 cals/serving, not counting the tortillas, cheese, sour cream, and other stuff you'll probably add to this.

From 365 Easy One-Dish Meals by Natalie Haughton.

This dish qualifies as going-places food because I prepared it for the crowd at a family reunion a decade or so ago. And family reunions are most certainly a road trip for our household. In fact, they are too much road trip. We have ditched the car for the plane. I weep for those book characters above who trudged their way from Manitoba to California, in a sick and coughing van to boot, covering scenery that makes me grateful for jet planes, despite what a hassle flying has turned out to be.

And now I leave you. I'm off to check tomorrow's weather. May it not ruin the little Cincinnati road trip I've got all planned out, complete with pizza and ice cream, Pandora on the car stereo and walks in hilly neighborhoods.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Une Boulette de Vache en Fran├žais est Encore Une Galette de Vache.

I don't know about you and your smart phone, but I've gotten awfully app-happy with mine. This week, my new on-phone toy was Google Translate.

I was forced into it, you might say, while reading Tim Gautreaux's The Missing. His main character is Louisiana Cajun, apt to break in to his French at any moment. I finally got tired of missing out on these little story bits and hunted around for the translator.

Over there at Google they have made mighty big strides at undoing Babel's babble. And thanks to a few oft-repeated lines in Gautreaux's book, I can now say a couple French phrases without any of their help at all.

Unfortunately, these phrases are not fit for polite company.

Anyway, Missing is a book with a lot of side trips. You'll get some battlefields right after World War I. You'll get some Mississippi River boat and the wild, boat-bashing dance parties thereon. You'll get some darkly degenerate backwoods folks. You'll get a little girl stolen from her parents. We wind up to the big moment when the missing-girl storyline resolves itself, and then the book goes on for another seventy pages or so, which is as deflating as wolfing down your cupcake in the middle of dinner, then turning back to the green beans.

Maybe Gautreaux isn't the master of plotting, but if you don't mind the side trips, many with delightful dialogue, you'll have yourself a middling good time.

Not to mention equipping yourself with some fine French insults. Cow patties indeed!

Next up on the Finished Book Pile, we have The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi Durrow. At first, it's vague, with wispy hints of the event that ignites the story. If the reader can battle through all this vagueness, not to mention the many, many characters Durrow throws in before the reader knows what to do with them--if you can hold on, the story eventually tightens up, and you will get your bearings. I loved the peek into the tangled life of a bi-racial girl. As for the final third, some of those vague threads from the beginning tied up together and made me catch my breath just a little. Just a little.

Lotta cow patties in this one, too. But I thought the bi-racial stuff was quite illuminating.

As for your recipe, how about a little Vegetable Chicken Medley?


For such an near-instant dish, it turns out to be not terribly instant at all. You need to plan ahead and have cooked chicken on hand (we ate grilled chicken a couple days before, throwing a couple extra pieces on the fire). And you can't hurry brown rice. So you might as well set it in its pot, park yourself near the kitchen and pick up a good book. Tell anybody who hassles you that you are tending to something important and can't get away right now.

Say it nicely. No French insults, OK?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Posing as a Locavore

Do I get credit for buying local when I bring home a bag of sweet corn foisted on me by a neighbor?

All I was trying to do was take a walk, but I rounded the last corner and there the young man stood, blinking at a truck bed full of ripened ears. "My parents grow this not far from here and I said I could take a dozen or so. But Mom brought me all this."

I took pity on him. "I could take a half dozen."

He gave me a huge bag, proving that over-giving in hard-wired in that clan.

I'm just gonna take locavore credit for it anyway, so I can join in the vibe of Doug Fine's Farewell, My Subaru It's a quick read, a classic fish-out-of-water account of a Long Island-born boy who decides to live off the land.

He buys a ranch in New Mexico and, from the sound of things, I'll bet the sellers snickered quietly when they walked away with Fine's money.

He busies himself buying a pair of goats, installing solar panels and hunting down used fry oil for his retrofitted truck. He starts raising chickens--amazingly easy (until he learns about coyotes).

There are floods, but no famine. There are girlfriends. There is surely a mighty big checkbook somewhere to pay for all this set-up.

Fine's goal was to enjoy all the perks of his cell-phone-carrying, movie-watching, ice-cream-eating life without hurting Mother Earth. I had fun, even if he didn't really convert me.

Next up, Screen Plays by David Cohen is a collection of his Script Magazine interviews with with screen writers. It's a fascinating look into the writing process. When adapting a novel, what do you leave in? What do you take out? Do you add characters that never appeared in the book? How do you take pages of talky narrative and turn it into scenes?

Cohen's book covers twenty-five movies, only one of which I might have seen. Some of them were hits. Others simply baffled audiences. Some of the screenwriters, I might add, were baffling. To read about a man defending the humanity and relevance of his NC-17-rated screenplay is to witness an expert round of self-justification.

However, once you have hawked up that part and gotten it out of your system, perhaps you will be hungry for:

Blue-Ribbon Beef Nachos

Sadly, I do not have the ingredients to make this tonight. Nor does this qualify as locavore eating, but I already admitted I was a poser, didn't I?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Wait for the Movie

You are a graffiti artist. The city is on to your tricks and sends crews out to clean up your artwork, almost by the next morning. Nearly all the walls in your city neighborhood have now been declared, by city ordinance, off-limits.

You wake up one morning, go out on the street and see a stunning new work of graffiti on one of the forbidden walls. Upon closer examination, you discover that it is an advertisement for Tylenol. Who did this and why did they get away with it? And does Tylenol think they can fool you this way?

Anne Elizabeth Moore's Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing and the Erosion of Integrity is all about how marketing execs find new ways to sneak their messages into your world. Or, more specifically, into Moore's world. She belongs to the original punk movement. Over there in punk-world, they have vowed to live with integrity, free from the influence of corporations. Oh, but those clever people at Nike, Tylenol and Toyota--they have their ways!

This is a book that would make a riveting documentary. Or a week of documentaries, given all the material Moore covers in here. But it's a tough read, especially since, unlike the author, my integrity isn't all that offended.

May I, instead, recommend to you the park bench where I read one of Moore's chapters? It was in Cincinnati. It overlooked a deep bend in the Ohio River. Teenagers, day tourists and limping grandmothers came and went while I fought my way through Moore's indignant prose.

One man parked himself two benches away and studied, with his binoculars, everything from the sailboat masts upriver to the toy houses on the Kentucky side. Then four giggling girls approached him. Would he please be in a quick little video with them? They all lined up and did a choo-choo train dance while a mom recorded it. Then he returned to his seat, smiling, and said, "I haven't moved like that in years."

So, nice park. Just take a better book.

And it wouldn't hurt to bring along a couple of these:

Double Chip Cookies

Friday, July 13, 2012

Playing with Matches

The grass is a sickly yellow. The shrunken edges of our pond reveal grassy banks that usually remain well hidden. The weeds have taken over every lawn along my walking routes.

Given this droughty state of things, we have been warned not to play with matches around here, or fireworks, or any other sparky things.

I'm on board with this, having recently seen pictures of Colorado cars fleeing in front of a wall of orange flame.

I'm especially on board after reading John Pipkin's Woodsburner, a fictionalized treatment of a real event.

It concerns Henry David Thoreau, of Walden Pond fame. A year before he went into the woods to commune with the flora and fauna, he set them afire one dry and windy April day. He merely wanted to cook a chowder. But the flames outmaneuvered him in short order and rushed towards the town of Concord, Massachusetts.

Pipkin brings Thoreau and three or four other characters to life. There is a preacher addled by opium (his chapters were slow-going for me), a bookseller who hopes to expand his empire and a Scandinavian farm hand. Cow patties aplenty.

As for your recipe, we went all out for fruit salads recently, snapping up blueberries and strawberries and eating them this way and that. You can start with the more healthful version:

Poppy Seed Fruit Salad

Next, you can try something a little more sugared up. Since it features marshmallows, it is, in my mind, a very Mormon salad:

Marshmallow Fruit Salad


Thursday, June 28, 2012

Great Undertakings

Sometimes, if you think you're not due to die soon, and you can summon the energy and concentration, you embark upon a Great Undertaking.

Great Undertakings are projects that you can't conquer in a day. Or a week. It could be raising a child from diapers to driver's license. It could be shepherding a constitutional amendment through ratification. It could be cutting out a valley with only a glacier for a tool.

Or it could be reading Alice Schroeder's The Snowball, all 800-something pages of it.

Schroeder's biography of financier Warren Buffett portrays his precocious childhood wherein he often sat on his front porch, writing down license plate numbers of cars turning at a nearby corner. Should a crime ever be committed down that street, Warren believed he could hand over numbers and help the police solve the case.

Warren exhibited the same ambition when he landed in the hospital with appendicitis. His doting aunt gave the bored boy a fingerprinting kit and he went about fingerprinting all the nuns in the hospital, just in case they, too, slipped off the straight and narrow way.

Warren's quirky hobbies taught him the art of handicapping, of reading probabilities. This came in quite handy when he grew up, for Warren decided to make a million dollars by age 35. Since he didn't care much for manual labor, he invested in the stock market. Warren met his goal and, like a movie buff who can't stop reaching into the popcorn bucket, just kept on going. The man simply can't help himself. The money keeps rolling in, somewhere in the hundreds of billions by now.

I patiently waded through a few too many pages of financial arcana in hopes of getting the scoop on Warren's personal life. Let's just say that, were he your neighbor, his marital status would have you gossiping over the fence. How in the world did all the parties agree to the arrangement? What made each of them say, "Yep, I'm OK with that"?

After such marathon reading, I rewarded myself with Diana Lopez' Confetti Girl. It's a middle schooler story with a Latino flavor. It's quick, it's lightweight, it's got a likable heroine and her crazy socks.

As for your recipe, we glorified our hot dogs this week with a tasty  Coney Island Sauce.

This recipe celebrates my recent week in Detroit where, every suburb I drove through had a "koney island"-type restaurant, leading me to believe that a lot of Michigan people landed there from the East Coast and they miss the old neighborhoods.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Scattered and Bloody

As 24-hour news stories go, I missed it.

I lost hours of my life to hanging chads, to O.J.'s glove, to a girl named Monica and unmentionable things one can do with cigars (so sorry for that one, kids), but I totally missed one of the biggies. I went to Relief Society one night where somebody, in the opening prayer, asked God to comfort those in the school shooting in Colorado and I said "Amen," opened my eyes and asked the ladies next to me, "What school shooting?"

By the time I tuned in to the events at Columbine High School, they had become a somewhat coherent story, with a who, what, when and where. But, as documented by Dave Cullen in his book, Columbine, to the people in the middle of the drama, it was a far more confusing event.

To the students trapped inside the school, it was a hunkering down in classrooms as violent noises erupted from somewhere down the hall. It was calling the news station on their cell phones and watching the anchors up on the classroom TVs talk to them.

To the police and SWAT teams assembled around the perimeter of the school, it was a foggy puzzle. How many assailants were in there? Fleeing students gave conflicting stories. "Guys in trench coats." "Guys in t-shirts." "Guys in hats." It sounded like an army, roving about with unpredictable aim and motive.

To the friends of the assailants, it was a series of lightbulb moments, when they strung together clues that they had overlooked recently in Eric and Dylan's behavior. It was the discovery that they might have aided the attack. Weren't they there when the murderers bought the guns, the bomb materials? Was that what Eric and Dylan had planned to do with these weapons?

To the parents gathered at a local elementary school, it was a long wait for the list of survivors to appear. And to some of those parents, it was an all-day wait with no word until they were finally herded into a room with comforting phrases, and maybe even some doughnuts, and finally told the bad news.

To the parents of the murderers, it was an awful awakening to their own cluelessness, for which I don't blame them, having been a clueless parent myself. It was the first day of the rest their lives, now marred as they bore the brunt of the public's anger.

Cullen devotes several chapters to the psychology of the killers, and a few more to the suits and countersuits that started flying once the initial shock wore off. Those chapters were tough to slog through. Thank goodness for other chapters documenting how the widowed and the severely injured picked up the pieces of their lives.

But enough about horror. Let's talk about brownies instead. I think you will find Favorite Frosted Brownies difficult to resist.

The woman who submitted the recipe likes to serve it in a Valentine dinner for her sweetie. We lacked a special occasion, but that's never stopped us before.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Opera On The Cheap

Joseph Volpe almost persuades me to buy a ticket to the opera.

His memoir, The Toughest Show on Earth, recounts his rise from crack backstage carpenter to general manager of the Met. Along the way, his long hours ruined two marriages and his blunt manner (by his account) saved the beloved New York institution from union fights and out-of-control divas.

Since the Met is not real handy to me right now, I'd have to check out local opera. Somehow I doubt that I'd see the same elaborate, big-budget scenery that Volpe's directors put on the stage:

"Twelve Indonesian birds and seven pear puppets, carried by twenty running puppeteers, had to com and go during arias and duets. . . . A Las Vegas chorus of bird-headed showgirls on stilts had to peck and prance around Papageno as he fantasized about finding himself a girlfriend."

I also doubt my local opera offers running subtitles on little monitors mounted on the back of the chairs, another Volpe innovation. My, my, how that would enhance the show.

I guess I'll just make do with Volpe's book, in which he reveals which singers are the flakiest and flightiest. Is it the sopranos? The tenors? The basses? Read and find out.

He also vows that opera stars can come from anywhere, citing the case of one Charles Taylor, who was once a farmhand in Arizona, and a meth addict to boot. Let this be a lesson to those of us who have not yet reached our dreams.

My book pile also included a quittee: Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles. This skinny little book is a fictional letter of complaint. It sounded like a fun premise. Strangely, it was not fun at all.

I'm also about to give up on the current book on my nightstand, White Savage by Fintan O'Toole. 'Tis a very cluttered history about William Johnson of our pre-Revolutionary era. I suppose he acted as a liaison between European and Indian cultures, but I may never know for sure because O'Toole's exhaustive work is losing me fast. However, I've had some very nice naps with his book in my hands.

As for your recipe,  Taco-Filled Pasta Shells was a dish that came together easily after a hard week of crashing computers, a crock-pot dinner spoiled by a faulty electrical outlet and, worst of all, a cat adoption gone bad. It was comfort food indeed. It also makes extra to freeze for later.


Mine looked much juicier than what you'll find in the picture.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

White People Like Eating Outdoors

I'm in the mood for a picnic these days. After all, the sun is shining. The tulips are out.

Never mind that those tulips are shivering in the brisk wind out there. From my kitchen window, it certainly looks like a great day for eating under a tree. This illusion is probably what spurred me to add  Grilled Sub Sandwich to the menu. I hope to try it again when the tulips stop shivering.

As for the Finished Book Pile, today we have Stuff White People Like: The Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions by Christian Lander. Lander skewers a certain kind of white people: hipsters. I read through his book, laughing with an air of superiority because I'm not into free-trade coffee or pretending to be Canadian or Being the Only White Person Around or Having Two Last Names. But white people are also into eating outdoors (see above) so, oops!, I guess I'm busted, not to mention that I like gentrification and Netflix and Manhattan and scarves. Still, I'm pretty much a failure as a white person/hipster. But that made Lander's book all the more fun.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Send Me to Istanbul

Here I sit in the airport, having survived the indignities of check-in, but sad that I'm not taking a trip like the one Paul Theroux describes in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star.  

Or maybe not.  His trip, a retracing of the journey he wrote about in  The Great Railway Bazaar, takes him through Romania, where "The look of Bucharest was desperate and naked, . . . everyone struggling, everyone dressed as though for a hike on a rainy day or dirty job."

Or maybe so, because he also passes through Istanbul , "habitable, a city with the soul of a village . . . the sight of its mosques and churches can be almost heart-stopping, . . . Most of all I like the city for its completeness and its self-sufficiency; it is a finished work, distinctly itself."   It is "dramatic in its vistas, its spaces, its mixed population....great for walking, or taking a ferry from embankment to embankment, ... the bazaars, the gardens, the promenades, the fish markets, and the fruit stalls . . ."

When I read those passages, my birthday was coming up and I couldn't think of anything to want but a trip to Istanbul, 'cause there's nothing I love better than vistas, gardens and places to walk. 
But I settled for a box of frozen Ding-Dongs instead.

Moving along, Theroux's journey pulls him through Turkmenistan,.where the bumbling despot in charge of the amusingly miserable little nation has renamed all the days of the month and the week after his family and friends. 

Then, on to Bangalore.  All those jobs that left America?  They landed in Bangalore.  I'm sure you have all gotten your share of  calls from "Larry" or "Steve" whose accent was so thick, you weren't sure whether you just ordered a new shirt or sold your twenty shares of Apple stock. 

Maybe you were peeved enough to demand that next time they hand you off to a native speaker of English.Well, "Larry" and "Steve" are on to that little trick.  They've been practicing their American accents  and they know how to sound just like your cousin in Ashtabula.

I'm sorry if this news ruins your week.  If so, you might comfort yourself with a helping of  Ravioli with Sausage.

I'm stuffed in a middle seat on the plane now, not headed for Istanbul.  Just gonna have to make do with Denver.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Shallow Beauty

I want to cut my hair in a bob and get myself a diaphanous dress. That's what I get for reading Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil. Set in the 1920s among British colonials off doing their job in Hong Kong, Veil tells the story of Kitty Fane, who marries in haste, then takes comfort in the arms of a dashing colonial officer.

Midway through the story, Kitty risks becoming a decent person. This slim tale, told in a spare and serious tone, is actually more fun when Kitty is shallow.

No cow patties, which is amazing, given the subject.

And speaking of shallow things, I know people pay tribute to true beauty and deep beauty but, face it, shallow beauty makes for much better stories. And let's not blame our culture for shallow beauty's grip on our eyes. Nope, it is bred right into our genes. A certain little boy I know possessed an eye for beauty long before he tasted his first solid food. He could pick out the prettiest girl in the room and flash her his biggest smile. If his studio-shot pictures came back with a particularly happy face, I knew the photographer must have been quite a looker.

And speaking of the shallow versus the deep and the true, we feature a dessert that tastes like a granola bar, except that it's redeemed by a whole lot of chocolate.

In fact, in the last granola bar commercial I saw, the voice-over preached the bars' virtues--the fiber, the nutrients--while the camera came in close on its vices--thick scoops of peanut butter, slow-mo shots of a stream of dripping chocolate. This, my friends, was food porn.

Those granola bars couldn't be much worse than Chocolate Oatmeal Bars

I suppose any candy bar will do. I'd better make them again soon, with Butterfingers, just to make sure. :-)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Complete This Sentence

My pet peeves. A list. No, just one item. Big one though.

Sentence fragments. Drive me nuts. Doubling over. In pain. Oh, the pretentiousness!

That's why I quit The Marrowbone Marble Company by Glenn Taylor. Amazon fell in love with this book, touting it as one of the best of whatever year it came out. A story about simple people who have a good idea and start up a company sounds tempting, no? I love those kinds of stories.

But Taylor, man of fragments, came off like a rank amateur. Maybe he should try his hand at haiku.

I did, however, love running my fingers over the embossed bird wings on the book jacket.

Next up, Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain. I had my doubts. The cover was a dull gray, and no embossed bird wings to fondle.

But now I understand why Twain is famous. We have no plot here, and too many characters to remember. We're talking about a twisty, long river, for goodness sakes, and the people who pilot it and put up with its floody moods. Still, between Twain's exaggerations and his self-deprecations, he makes it all (well, most of it) quite engaging.

He begins in his boyhood, where all his little friends in Hannibal, MO, watched the steamboats chugging up and down the river. They all longed to get on those boats and Live Life. Finally, one of the Hannibal boys hired on to a boat, and when he returned to tell his adventures, to brag about how well he knew "St. Looy," they "envied him and loathed him."

You have to slow down and adopt the rhythms of yesteryear to enjoy Twain's book. But at least the man completes his sentences. I'm sorry that he's long gone. I'm sure he would have made for a most interesting dinner guest.

As for your dinner, I offer  Almond Raspberry Tossed Salad. This is for people who would rather skip vegetables and go straight to dessert. If we make the green stuff interesting enough and sweet enough, I will devour it.

We served this at the Jim's wedding "rehearsal dinner." All the new relatives got along great. I think the salad deserves the credit.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Half of That Billion is Mine, You Lout

This week, one of my Facebook friends lamented having to make menus. She hates, hates, hates it every week.

I love, love, love it! But how would it have looked if I went on her post and told her so? Neener, neener, neener?

Still, I really can't help myself. I'd rather plan and cook meals than learn how to post pictures on this blog.

So let's try something different this week. Here's our menus from the last week, with links, if I've got them (another way to get out of posting pictures--whee!).

On a Saturday night, we were signed up to share the the sister missionaries. We brought out the clamshells and packed up our family's favorite main dish, the ever gooey and sharp-tasting Skillet Mac 'n Cheese, as well as Microwave Apple Crisp.

SKILLET MAC 'N CHEESE:
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter or margarine
1 3/4 cup (7 oz.) uncooked elbow macaroni
1 large onion, chopped
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
1/8 tsp. pepper
1/2 tsp. oregano
1/8 tsp. dry mustard
2 cups water
1 TB flour
1 can (12 oz.) evaporated milk
2 cups (8 oz.) sharp cheddar cheese, shredded

In large skillet melt butter over low heat. Add uncooked macaroni, onion and seasonings. Cook, stirring occasionally, over medium heat for 7 minutes, or until onion becomes transparent. Add water; bring to boil. Cover; simmer 20 minutes or until macaroni is tender. Sprinkle flour over mixture; blend well. Stir in evaporated milk and shredded cheese. Simmer 5 minutes longer, stirring occasionally, until cheese melts. Serve hot. Makes 6 servings, 400 cals. ea.

And for dessert:  Microwave Apple Crisp

The next day was Fast Sunday. I don't know how much credit we get for going hungry when, after the long hours pass, we gather around the table and mow through mounds of something like this (which should, by the way, go in your file of disgustingly easy main dishes):

Chicken 'n Noodles Skillet

And I do believe a certain picky-eater grandson actually ate some Orange-Glazed Carrots

On Monday, we went in for a veggie option. It's a little strange, but appeals to people who like their food gooey, and that would be me. I don't know why the peppers and onion taste so sweet in this, but they do.

Vegetable Tortilla Stack

Dessert was like a visit to the ice cream shop as we forked our way through Malted Milk Pie (didn't hurt that we had a lot of Whoppers left over either).

Tuesday night, it was time to repent of a weekend full of desserts. Fortunately, I didn't notice the deprivation, since I love Chicken Caesar Salad Pizza so much. I think it's appeared on this blog before, but it's worth the repeat.

As for Wednesday, we've also featured this recipe before, but why would I let that stop me from trotting it out again? That's why we try new things, right? So we know what we want to eat again and again? 

Honey Chicken Stir-Fry

Thursday's dinner, well, it didn't turn out as well as I remember. I think I got a little free with the dill weed this time, but I'm sure you won't make the same mistake. It was Creamy Ham Turnovers, and the smell of the baking crust pretty much drives hungry people nuts.


And now, over on the Finished Book Pile, we have All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, by Janelle Brown:

Janice Miller wakes up one day to a news report that her husband's pharmaceutical company has just gone public and the prices shoot straight up to the stratosphere. Let's see now, if Paul and I own this many shares and the shares are worth $$$XXX, oh my, oh my, oh my, that means we're stinkin' rich! She spends her day buying groceries and fresh flowers for the celebration, only to open an e-mail from her husband telling her that the marriage is over.

Her teenage daughter watches Janice swing wildly between frantic house-cleaning and laying in bed with greasy hair and a bottle of wine. Eventually an adult daughter returns home and the three women tiptoe around each other in their comfy custom home, each woman trying to keep some pretty big secrets from the others.

If only I had a beach on which to read this book, because that's just the kind of book it was. A cow patty or two.

Next up, Nine Lives by Dan Baum. Baum chronicles nine residents of New Orleans, extracting from them their life stories clear back to the '60s and following them up through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Baum's subjects hail from all walks of life, from the Garden District's upper crust to the dismal streets of the Lower Ninth Ward, the section wiped out by the levee break.

The Lower Ninth knew it was never as fancy as uptown New Orleans, but it was a decent little neighborhood. Or it was until containerized shipping destroyed the jobs along the riverfront. After that, the Ninth turned in to a place of men idling on porches, youthful gangs roaming the streets, up to no good, and grandmas tending the flowers in their gardens, holding on in the face of a creeping hopelessness.

As for cow patties, I'd say there is one cow patty character. You can avoid his sections chapters until the middle of the book or so, when things get better.

Happy reading and eating.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Cruel Planet

I never watched the TV show, Sex and the City.
But tipped off by a review of the original book by Candace Bushnell, wherein the reviewer said Bushnell painted a far more realistic picture than the carnival of dating and shoe-shopping that Hollywood made of it, I put her book on my list.

Actually, Bushnell comes off less as truth-teller and more as bored, catty queen bee. Make that a very observant, bored, catty queen bee.

Didn't I always tell myself that I loved New York, but would never know what New York was like inside those lovely brownstones?

Well, it's a cruel world in there. The rich and the beautiful constantly reel in and then discard one another. Everybody is on the make. Some of us grow up, pair off and gladly leave behind the unbearable tensions of dating life (Will anybody notice me? Will he be at the party? Does he like me better than her?). Of course we also give up the thrills and flattery that go with it (He's checking me out! He likes me!). In Bushnell's world, they never do, married or not.

Are there cow patties in this book? Well, honey, cow patties are the subject here.

Next up, Live Through This by Debra Gwartney. After a nasty divorce, Gwartney's daughters dress in black cloth and dog collars and start the grand sport of running away. They're only twelve and fourteen, if I remember right. They have no use for their mother, except when life on the street finally exhausts all their resources and they come home to raid the pantry and the dresser drawers, then head out again to the world of drugs and confused kids.

Gwartney is a concerned mother, but she's also an interfering and enabling one. You wouldn't want to live her story, but it makes for some pretty good reading. There's even a Boise connection to the story.

As for your recipe, Creamy Chicken Enchiladas is not too tough. It's something I managed to pull together on a day when I just couldn't get going. I derailed myself first thing in the morning, reading news magazines on my phone. And since this is an election year, I fear that's the way it's going to go all the way until November.

Creamy Chicken Enchiladas

Monday, January 2, 2012

Dud Pile

Winter has set in, as you know, and I'm dying to escape it, even if it's just in the pages of a book. Sadly, the books I have chosen lately were a pile of duds. So let's just dive in to the Finished Book Pile today and express our frustrations, OK?

This pile of duds included Dangerous Laughter, a collection of short stories by Stephen Millhauser. These are odd little stories. In one, a fad of laughter spreads through a group of young teens. Yep, that's what they get together to do, laugh until they grow hysterical and spent. In another story, a small town constructs an exact replica of itself somewhere on its own outskirts. Dozens of civic employees work constantly to keep up with all the small changes. If somebody moves a doily in the real town, a worker moves the same doily over in the replica town. Citizens of the real town visit the replica whenever they wish, wandering through the bedrooms of their neighbors' "houses."

Where does all this come from? The author, a professor at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, must be lost in some mighty strange thoughts as he moseys along on the sidewalks to and from campus. We've reviewed two other Millhauser book on this blog, Edwin Mullhouse (which was good in a quirky way) and Martin Dressler.

But maybe you like strange stories. I was not thrilled and, in fact, gave up near the end.

Next up, and another strange one, is The Hunters by Claire Messud. I've read and loved Messud before and, like Millhauser above, must have read her best stuff first. I certainly don't remember all the maddening, writerly affectations that I found in this book: In every sentence, she'd capture my interest, then take off, inserting new clauses between everything, side trips if you will, and by the time she returned to the main thrust of her sentence, it had grown as thick as a mega-burger, one of those things you can't get your mouth around.

This little book contained two novellas. The first was the story of a woman who escaped WWII and lived out her remaining years in Toronto. In the second, a New England professor (man or woman? Messud never tells us) stays in London for a summer, his/her peace disturbed by a pesky neighbor. The New York Times called it "Exceptional, a work of near-miraculous perfection." I call it "Huh?" Baffling, inconclusive, no pay-off.

My dear Claire M., I liked you so much in The Emperor's Children. What gives?

Finally, I embarked upon Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet and then un-embarked upon it. It was about . . . um . . . um . . . Sadly, nothing about this book stuck with me. There was a man in it, a proper sort of gentleman, toting his umbrella with him as he walked about in New York. There were his memories--some time in WWII as a Jewish refugee, some time in London. There were pages and pages of his philosophy.

So, a pile of books having failed to save me from winter's dullness, I tried inviting friends over instead. It worked much better, thank you. These particular friends told a pile of amusing stories, quite a few of them about a back-country ward where they used to live. Journal-worthy events happened every Sunday. "Yep, there was the time I had to break up a fistfight in Elder's Quorum."

We ate:

Sweet 'n Spicy Chicken

Dad's Favorite Salad

Buttery Rolls  (We've already featured this one, but it's worth a repeat).




White Cake with Raspberry Sauce (except we used strawberries, since John doesn't like raspberry seeds)


It was an easy and yummy dinner.

And I promise, the next pile of books will be better.