Sunday, February 23, 2014

Babysitter's Club -- Not!

What was going on at 5 a.m. at your house?
Oh, that's right, some of you actually arise at that hour and . . . what?  Run?  Read scriptures?  Sip hot chocolate while calmly jotting your to-do list?  

And the rest of you dream weird dreams, the ones where the rooms keep changing or you fall from the sky or you're back in college, finding out you just missed the entire semester.   Or you put a child back to bed and you dearly hope that he stays there.  

Well, I was trying to finish Andre Dubus' Garden of Last Days.  I gave out somewhere in the 300s of this heavy 500-page novel, but it wasn't for lack of interest.  The plot gripped me like double-stick tape; I just couldn't hold my eyes open anymore.   

It begins with April, a stripper at a Florida men's club.  She and her three-year-old daughter rent from an elderly woman, Jean.   Jean babysits the adorable tot while April dances.  But one night, Jean doesn't feel so well.  April can't miss work, so she brings her young daughter to the club, where the "house mother" of the dancers agrees to look after her.  

Even before I tell you about the troublesome customer that gets kicked out of the club for breaking the don't-touch-the-girls rule, even before I explain about the young Muslim man who visits the club to sample Western decadence, you know April's babysitting arrangement won't end well. 

And there you'll be, a lone light on in the house when the paper boy passes by and throws the morning edition on your front step.  

This is the most cow-patty-laden book I've ever vouched for here.  What else can we expect, when it's about strippers and the the sad horndogs that watch them?  You'll have to make your own decision about how much you'll tolerate.  But the story is also about humans trying to reach their dreams, or get a break from constant toil.  Somebody takes a shortcut they shouldn't take.  Somebody lets their temper get the best of them.  Somebody just wants a blue Slush Puppie and her own bed.  

And somebody (that's me) might be up late again tonight, gunning it all the way to page 535.  

Before I got all caught up in Dubus' book, I had time to cook:


16 oz. boneless skinless chicken breast 
2 tsp salt 
1/2 tsp black pepper 
1 TB canola oil 
2 medium onions, chopped 
2 medium carrots, c
2 TB flour 
1 28-oz can whole peeled tomatoes 
1/4 cup tomato paste 
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper 
1 14.5-oz. can chicken broth 
2 1/2 cups grated white cheddar 
3 TB heavy cream 
1/2 baguette (8 oz.) halved crosswise and sliced
Cut up chicken. Season with salt and pepper. In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat oil over medium heat. Add chicken to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally until golden brown, about 8 minutes; remove and reserve. Add onions and carrots and cook until soft and beginning to brown, 7 min. Add garlic, flour, tomatoes, tomato paste and cayenne and cook, breaking up tomatoes with a spoon, 2 min. Whisk in broth, then add reserved chicken.
Bring to a simmer, cover and cook until chicken is very tender, 25 min. Stir in 1 1/2 cups cheese and cream until combined. Keep warm.
Before serving, place baguette slices on a baking sheet and sprinkle with remaining 1 cup cheddar. Broil until cheese melts, 2 min. Serve stew with toasts. Serves 8 at 395 cals. each. 

This recipe seemed like French country cooking at its best, a flavorful and warm supper on a nippy winter night.  It came in the now-defunct Ladies Home Journal that appears to be a gift subscription in my husband's name.  Perhaps his mother signed him up? 
I do love to ask him if he found the spring wardrobe hints useful, if he enjoyed the Diane Sawyer interview and if he picked up any tips from "Can This Marriage  Be Saved?" 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

You Wouldn't Expect it

They say it'll be sweater weather by the end of the week.  They say these infernal snow walls built up along the street will whittle down.

It's like waking up and trying to remember a former life.  You mean we won't have to cancel every party we plan?  No more wincing against the wind as we walk into the grocery store?  No more driving slow over the ice crust that the plowers haven't bothered to scrape off the streets?  

You mean, I could even dream of taking walks again?  

Well, wouldn't that be nice.  Me and my walking shoes have seen some pretty territory out there, neighborhoods tucked back where you didn't know anything beautiful could be.   What a cute little park, and all the houses facing it just so!   Zounds! A mansion in this part of town?  Oh, my, somebody went overboard with the railroad-themed street names here.  

Until then, we tackle The Leopard, by Giuseppe de Lampedusa, which concerns a Silician prince in 1860, whose fiefdom is on the wane.  His upstart neighbor purchased some land through foreclosures, and now the neighbor is richer than the prince. 

The prince's tenants pay their rent in kind, presenting him with cheeses he doesn’t like, and slaughtered lambs whose falling entrails put him in mind of dead soldier he recently saw rotting beside the road.   

Political matters in Sicily threaten to topple his world.  And the resident priest on his estate reminds  him that he needs to come in to confession because, yes, the prince has been naughty.  He ignores his wife, the mother of his seven children, and slips into town where he knows a certain fetching peasant girl.  No cow patties.

On the page where I left off yesterday, a love triangle was just heating up. 

If you dig in to this story, expect to be confused by the legion of characters, many of whom go by at least three different names.  But sometimes these obscure books by minor authors make for an interesting little side trip, like a walk tucked back in a neighborhood where you didn’t know anything beautiful could be.  

And on that theme of interesting side trips, here’s a dish I doubt I would have thought up myself.  Quite possibly the CEO of Pillsbury wanted a boost in sales.  "Write better copy!" he told the advertisers.  "Invent more crescent roll recipes!" he told the test kitchen cooks.  

Corny Ham Bundles 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Messages From a Young Reader

When I opened up this week's book, my reading experience was, um, enhanced by these sticky notes:

Photo deleted

I find one.  I read a few more pages. I find another.  The handwriting seems young, possibly the same age as the book's heroine. 

As I've admitted before on this blog, there are a few books in which I could've used these kinds of  notes, telling me "laugh here.  This is funny."

The book in question is Last Life by Claire Messud, an author we've featured before on this blog.  This time around, she tells the story of the LaBasse family as they run their hotel in the south of France.   The teenaged granddaughter's social life consists of inviting her friends over to swim in the hotel pool after hours.  It's great fun until Grandfather loses his temper and fires a gun into the party. 

There's the seaside scenery.  There's the heroine's American mother, who marries into all this Frenchness, not quite knowing what she's gotten herself into.  There's racial tension, because Algeria lies just across the Mediterranean and trades people back and forth with France.  And there's the young heroine herself, for whom the worst social disaster is clothing or attitude that "screams virgin."  Young ladies in her set seek to get it over with.

This packs the book with a few cow patties, sprinkled here and there like those pink sticky notes.  But you can easily hop over them.

You may find it harder to deal with Messud's run-on sentences, which keep interrupting themselves.  It's like heading downstairs to steal some cookies, with stops to straighten the books on the piano, and tidy the remotes by the TV, and sort the fruit in the basket, and sniff the leftovers in the fridge.

I'll put up with a lot to read a novel set in the South of France.

I don't know how it ends yet.

Meanwhile, I keep my strength up with:

Fudgy Banana Muffins

You'll note a full pallet of Hershey bars disappears into these muffins.  Tonight's young dinner guest, Emma's Little Sister (as in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program), saw me opening the candy bars and had to be restrained from all that chocolate.  Practically makes her a member of the family. 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Rusty, Rusty, When Will You Learn?

Remember Lawyer Rusty?  Accused of murder?  Guilty of canoodling with the Boy with Breasts?

Well, we're back to him this week.  In Scott Turow's Innocent, the sequel to Presumed Innocent, Rusty is now sixty years old.  He's a respected judge in Kindle County.  He wakes up one day to find that his wife has died beside him.

He sits with her for 24 hours, absorbing this event, before he calls any authorities.

And somebody in the prosecutor's office thinks that is . . . odd.

Meanwhile, Rusty has ensnared himself in another affair, which heightens the suspicion around him.  And this affair leads to a tangled web of human relationships where, unlike the first Turow book, all the parties are actually warm and real and likeable.  Oh, except for that prosecutor, who is just sure something ain't right here.

I really would like the hungry cats and the church meetings and stack of unpaid bills to go away right now so I can curl up with Rusty's story.  What will happen when all the people in this tangled web find out about each other?  I am torn with suspense. 

As soon as things quiet down tonight, I'll be right back in Turow's book, possibly munching one of these  Mississippi Mud Cookies as I follow Rusty's troubles from page to page:

NOTE: These were extra soft cookies.  It worked best to keep them on the cookie sheet for 10-15 minutes after baking before removing them.   Also, the published recipe called for parchment paper-lined baking sheets. Is this a new rule in baking?   I'll have to study up.