Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Armchair Novel Review - Corduroy Mansions

Corduroy Mansions
by Alexander McCall Smith
Paperback, 384 pages
Also available as an eBook and a hardcover


Alexander McCall Smith is best known for his award-winning series of novels, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. I was excited to read this book as: a) it has a cute doggie on the cover, b) he is an author that I have always wanted to read, and c) for some reason I thought it was a mystery - and you know how I love my mysteries!

Corduroy Mansions is the first in a new series and not, as I realized partway through, a mystery, but a wonderfully cozy series of character sketches that revolve around the tenants of an old and eccentric building in London's Pimlico neighbourhood: A middle-aged wine merchant and his ne'er-do-well son; an apartment of young women, each trying to find their way in life; a mysterious man from overseas; and a vegetarian, retired bomb-sniffing dog name Freddie de la Hay. Also a whole host of characters that weave into their lives: including an ornery MP, his psychoanalyst mother, a scheming would-be spouse, and a young man uncertain of his romantic preferences.

Smith draws you in with his gentle humour as you follow the adventures and misadventures of the residents of Corduroy Mansions, and the people who touch their lives. The book is perfect curl-up and get comfy reading. The weaving together of these characters is wonderful bedtime fare, and also makes a great book for travel.

Next up in the series: The Dog Who Came in From the Cold



Browse the hardcover edition here:

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Multigrain Wheat Bread

This is a bread with some exciting crunch to it - perfect for tuna salad or BLTs. It has a hearty chew and mouth-feel to it and some good-for-you grains paired with the loft and lightness that you get from white flour.

The best of both worlds really.

Who says we can't all get along?

Now get baking, clearly it is the first step to world peace - and you don't want to stand in the way of world peace do you? I didn't think so.
~~~~~
For this bread - you need a healthy sourdough starter - if you don't have one, you can make one following Susan's technique here.

And you need water that has been standing out overnight - so that the chlorine has had a chance to evaporate. If you leave water in your kettle, that will be fine (as long as it isn't hot!).

Multigrain Wheat Bread
adapted from Jeffrey Hamelman, Bread
for the Mellow Bakers

Levain
Bread flour - 3.8 oz
Water - 4.8 oz
Sourdough - 1½ Tbsp

Soaker
Assorted grains (such as: oats, millet, quinoa, coarse cornmeal, cracked wheat, cracked rye, flaxseeds, barley, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds) - 5.8 oz
Water - 6.9 oz

Dough
Bread flour - 12.2 oz
Whole-wheat flour - 1 lb
Water - 12.3 oz
Salt - 1 Tbsp + ½ tsp
Dry instant yeast - 2 tsp
Honey - 1 oz
Soaker - (all)
Levain - (all)

The night before:
Have a leisurely dinner and a glass or three of wine. Tidy up the dishes and mix up your soaker and levains.
In one bowl, mix your soaker ingredients together. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit on the counter overnight.
In the second bowl, mix your levain ingredients (feel free to add a few drops of water if you can't get all the flour incorporated). Cover, and let stand overnight beside your soaker.
Get a good night's sleep.

The next day:
How did you sleep? Awesome! Must have been the wine.
Get out your stand mixer bowl and put on the dough hook. Now - everyone into the pool! That's right - all your levain, all your soaker, and your dough ingredients. Easy-peasy.
Mix on lowish for 3 minutes until incorporated. Feel free to adjust flour/water if needed. A little at a time.
Now, turn to medium and knead for another 3 minutes.
Turn out onto a lightly floured board and finish kneading your bread for a couple of minutes, making a nice ball out of it. Put into a clean bowl and cover.
Let rise 1 hour. Fold the dough in onto itself and let rise another hour. You can nap in this time, as long as you set your timer. A few minutes here or there doesn't make much of a difference.
Divide dough into 2 pieces, or more if you want to do baguettes or buns.
Shape into loaves or whatever you fancy.
Let rise, covered, another hour.
Set oven to 440°F to preheat.
Bake about 40 minutes for large loaves, less for smaller loaves or buns. You want an internal temp of over 200°F with your instant read digital thermometer.
Let cool on racks.

This bread has been Yeastspotted!

MellowBakers.com

Friday, May 27, 2011

Pomegranate Blackberry Ice Cream

I have an ice cream tooth. Not a sweet tooth, per se. I can easily live without cakes or cookies or, gasp, chocolate - but I must have ice cream on hand at all times. The funny thing is, I only seem to make homemade ice cream in the summer. Why is that? Definitely a situation that needs remedying.

Ice cream is not that difficult to make. You need to master French custard, not too difficult - your only challenge is to go slow enough so as not to make scrambled eggs. Even then, you do get to strain out any small sins.

And figure out how you want to flavour your ice cream. I saw that my local grocer had both pomegranate juice and blackberries on sale - I thought ice cream. Well, wouldn't you?

As both the juice and berries are a little astringent - my good friend Sandy of Eat Real and At the Baker's Bench suggested keeping the fruit and custard components apart until churning, and macerating the berries in the simmering juice for a bit. Wise woman, she. It is good to be friends with a pastry chef. I just wish she lived closer.

If you are new to making ice cream - I suggest David Lebovitz's book The Perfect Scoop for great instruction and flavour ideas. Once you get going, I am sure you will come up with all sorts of interesting combinations.
And, as so many people ask - I use a Cuisinart ice cream maker, mine has a second bowl which I find very handy indeed.

Now, who wants some Pomegranate Blackberry Ice Cream?

Pomegranate Blackberry Ice Cream
KitchenPuppy kitchen

Custard
2 cups whipping cream (35%)
4 egg yolks
½ cup sugar, divided
¾ tsp pure vanilla extract


Fruit
1 cup pure 100% pomegranate juice
1 heaping cup blackberries
½ cup granulated sugar

For the custard:
Heat up the cream in a heavy bottom pot on medium. Add in most of the ½ cup sugar, keeping approximately 2 Tbsp back for the yolks. Stir gently now and then, heating until you see little bubbles start to form around the sides of the pot. Remove from heat.

In a small bowl, whisk yolks with the 2 Tbsp sugar and vanilla, with a fork. While whisking, add some of the heated cream, little by little, to your eggs. Going very slowly and whisking gently all the while keeps you from making scrambled eggs. When you have slowly added about a ladle-full, your eggs are tempered and you can add them to the rest of the cream in the pot.
Put the pot back on the element, on medium, and - while slowly whisking, heat on medium for about 5 minutes. Your custard should get nice and thick and creamy.
Remove from heat and strain into a clean bowl. Cover with plastic wrap - right on the custard so as not to form a skin - and refrigerate overnight.

For the fruit: 
In a small pot, heat up pomegranate juice, blackberries, and sugar. Let cook on medium for a few minutes, mashing the berries lightly. Remove from heat and let cool in the fridge overnight.

The next day, combine the custard and fruit right before churning - churn for 20-25 minutes in your ice cream maker or according your your manufacturer's instructions. Empty into a plastic container and freeze for several hours before serving.
I used this awesome scoop here for presentation.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Caramelle With Ricotta, Fresh Herbs and Black Olives

We southern Canadians are walking a tightrope of magic.

Winter is a memory, summer isn't quite here yet - we are in the suspended animation of spring. Blooms and buds and shoots and leaves and... the mosquitoes haven't quite woken up yet.

It is deck season, meaning we can lounge in the gloriousness of the season without being pestered by the buggies determined to drive us back into the house. We relish every moment, because we know it won't be long now. They're coming. 

The other magical part of spring and early summer is that the herbs look so darned good. Fresh and verdant, not like the leggy, rangy, moth-eaten things at the end of the season. When humidity stuns us into a stupor and we can only look helplessly at the garden before finding the nearest fan to lie in front of.

So this is the time to really take advantage of those herbs. In this pasta, I have stuffed the caramelle with fresh oregano, thyme, and chives - straight from the garden. They are rolled up like candies for a fun, casual version of a ravioli or tortellini. I enjoyed this shaping, but I have to say I found the edges a bit thick for my taste. I might make pillows or ravioli next time. But the flavours are amazing. So bright and green and perfect for deck dining. The sauce is pretty easy, but the pasta takes time. You can prepare the pasta ahead of time and then make the dish later on. This gives you more time for quiet contemplation of the garden. And wine.

Caramelle With Ricotta, Fresh Herbs and Black Olives
adapted from Jamie Oliver, Cook with Jamie
for IHCC Mad about Herbs

Caramella means “sweetie” in Italian, and this lovely sweetie-shaped pasta is really simple to make. The combination of the ingredients is one of classic friends: cheese, tomatoes, olives and herbs. It is a great pasta to make for summertime eating. And if you can get a hold of some great tomatoes and fresh herbs, this dish is absolutely amazing.

Caramelle are great to serve at a dinner party because you can make them in advance and leave them on a generously floured pan in the fridge. You can also have the sauce made up in advance so it’s just a case of cooking the caramelle and reheating the sauce. Simple!


1 pasta dough recipe (see Jamie’s Basic Recipe For Fresh Egg Pasta Dough, below)
A large bunch of fresh oregano, leaves picked, divided into two halves (one for filling, one for sauce - plus some extra for garnishing at the end)
2 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves
1 Tbsp chopped chives
9 oz buffalo ricotta cheese
A handful of good-quality kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
2 cups of grated parmesan cheese
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
2 knobs of butter
Olive oil
6 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced
3 large (1½ lbs) of the ripest tomatoes, halved and roughly chopped
Splash red wine
Balsamic vinegar

The first thing you need to do is make the dough and let it rest, covered with plastic, while you make the filling.

Put half of the oregano leaves into a bowl with the ricotta, thyme leaves, chives, olives and half the parmesan. Season with salt and pepper and add a splash of extra virgin olive oil if needed. Put to one side until you are ready to fill the caramelle.

Roll Out Pasta and Fill Caramelle

    Cut the pasta into 4 x 2 1/2-inch rectangles.
    Place a teaspoon of filling in the middle and brush lightly with water.
    Roll up and pinch hard to secure at each end.
    Keep on a flour-dusted tray in the fridge until you need them, and try to cook them as fresh as possible.

Sauce

Gently heat a knob of butter with a splash of olive oil in a saucepan. When the butter starts to foam, add the sliced garlic and rest of the oregano. A minute later add your tomatoes. Allow them to almost come to a boil, then simmer for up to 5 minutes until they have softened. You will be left with a lovely, fresh, rustic sauce. Season with salt and pepper, a splash of red wine, and a tiny swig of balsamic vinegar.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and add the caramelle. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until they begin to float, then carefully remove them to a colander using a spider or slotted spoon and reserve some of the cooking water if needed. Add the caramelle to the simmering tomato sauce and gently toss around. Let cook in the sauce until the texture you like.
Sprinkle in a handful of parmesan, then gently shake around and place a lid on the pan for 30 seconds while you get the plates out. Divide the caramelle between the plates, sprinkle with some extra oregano leaves and eat immediately.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Wine Suggestion
Italian White, Pino Grigio
(I actually served our house red - Cab Shiraz Merlot)

Jamie's Basic Recipe for Fresh Pasta

Ingredients

• 600g/1lb 6oz Tipo ‘00’ flour (or all-purpose)
• 6 large free-range or organic eggs or 12 yolks
(And I add a good pinch of salt - plus, I find that egg size varies - you might need more if yours are smaller)

Method

Try to get hold of Tipo ‘00’ flour – this is a very finely sieved flour, which is normally used for making egg pasta or cakes. In Italy it’s called farina di grano tenero, which means ‘tender’ or ‘soft’ flour.

Place the flour on a board or in a bowl. Make a well in the centre and crack the eggs into it. Beat the eggs with a fork until smooth. Using the tips of your fingers, mix the eggs with the flour, incorporating a little at a time, until everything is combined. Knead the pieces of dough together – with a bit of work and some love and attention they’ll all bind together to give you one big, smooth lump of dough!

You can also make your dough in a food processor if you’ve got one. Just bung everything in, whiz until the flour looks like breadcrumbs, then tip the mixture on to your work surface and bring the dough together into one lump, using your hands.

Once you’ve made your dough you need to knead and work it with your hands to develop the gluten in the flour, otherwise your pasta will be flabby and soft when you cook it, instead of springy and al dente.

There’s no secret to kneading. You just have to bash the dough about a bit with your hands, squashing it into the table, reshaping it, pulling it, stretching it, squashing it again. It’s quite hard work, and after a few minutes it’s easy to see why the average Italian grandmother has arms like Frank Bruno! You’ll know when to stop – it’s when your pasta starts to feel smooth and silky instead of rough and floury. Then all you need to do is wrap it in cling film and put it in the fridge to rest for at least half an hour before you use it. Make sure the cling film covers it well or it will dry out and go crusty round the edges (this will give you crusty lumps through your pasta when you roll it out, and nobody likes crusty lumps!).

How to roll your pasta

First of all, if you haven't got a pasta machine it's not the end of the world! All the mammas I met while travelling round Italy rolled pasta with their trusty rolling pins and they wouldn't even consider having a pasta machine in the house! When it comes to rolling, the main problem you'll have is getting the pasta thin enough to work with. It's quite difficult to get a big lump of dough rolled out in one piece, and you need a very long rolling pin to do the job properly. The way around this is to roll lots of small pieces of pasta rather than a few big ones. You'll be rolling your pasta into a more circular shape than the long rectangular shapes you'll get from a machine, but use your head and you'll be all right!

If using a machine to roll your pasta, make sure it's clamped firmly to a clean work surface before you start (use the longest available work surface you have). If your surface is cluttered with bits of paper, the kettle, the bread bin, the kids' homework and stuff like that, shift all this out of the way for the time being. It won't take a minute, and starting with a clear space to work in will make things much easier, I promise.

Dust your work surface with some Tipo ‘00’ flour, take a lump of pasta dough the size of a large orange and press it out flat with your fingertips. Set the pasta machine at its widest setting - and roll the lump of pasta dough through it. Lightly dust the pasta with flour if it sticks at all. Click the machine down a setting and roll the pasta dough through again. Fold the pasta in half, click the pasta machine back up to the widest setting and roll the dough through again. Repeat this process five or six times. It might seem like you're getting nowhere, but in fact you're working the dough, and once you've folded it and fed it through the rollers a few times, you'll feel the difference. It'll be smooth as silk and this means you're making wicked pasta!

Now it's time to roll the dough out properly, working it through all the settings on the machine, from the widest down to around the narrowest. Lightly dust both sides of the pasta with a little flour every time you run it through. When you've got down to the narrowest setting, to give yourself a tidy sheet of pasta, fold the pasta in half lengthways, then in half again, then in half again once more until you've got a square-ish piece of dough. Turn it 90 degrees and feed it through the machine at the widest setting. As you roll it down through the settings for the last time, you should end up with a lovely rectangular silky sheet of dough with straight sides - just like a real pro! If your dough is a little cracked at the edges, fold it in half just once, click the machine back two settings and feed it through again. That should sort things out. Whether you're rolling by hand or by machine you'll need to know when to stop. If you're making pasta like tagliatelle, lasagne or stracchi you'll need to roll the pasta down to between the thickness of a beer mat and a playing card; if you're making a stuffed pasta like ravioli or tortellini, you'll need to roll it down slightly thinner or to the point where you can clearly see your hand or lines of newsprint through it.

Once you've rolled your pasta the way you want it, you need to shape or cut it straight away. Pasta dries much quicker than you think, so whatever recipe you're doing, don't leave it more than a minute or two before cutting or shaping it. You can lay over a damp clean tea towel which will stop it from drying.

IHCCJamieOliver
IHCC

Monday, May 23, 2011

Moosewood Mondays: Spicy Beet Greens

Beware the bag.

You know the bag I am talking about - that trickster coyote bag in the grocery store. There's the orange one that holds carrots - that makes you believe that the carrots are actually orange and fresh and awesome. But when you  get home you find they are whitish and hairy and look like they have been kept in the grocery store manager's basement for the last six months.

Same goes with the reddish beet bag. You think you have a bounty of awesome beets but you end up with a bag of beet-shaped rocks with strangely thick skin.

Only buy the produce you can actually see, in my opinion. If they have to cover it up - there's a problem.
And, if you buy your beets fresh, you get the added bonus of beet greens! They are too tough to eat raw, generally, but they cook up wonderfully. Any recipe that calls for kale or chard can be adapted for beet greens. And they are super healthy. Angelic, even.

My simple rule of thumb? Cook them up the night you bring them home.
A - they take up way too much room in the fridge, and my fridge is always full. Usually of condiments, but that is another story..
B - you want them fresh and strong, they wilt quickly.

Spicy Beet Greens
adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home

Ingredients
1 large purple onion, cut in half and sliced into half moons
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 large bunch beet greens
2 tsp red wine vinegar, or to taste
pinch crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper


Beet greens are related to mustard greens. Cool, eh?
Method
Heat up the olive oil in a 12-inch pan. Add onion and cook on medium, stirring here and there, for about 10 minutes, until softened. Add everything else, keep stirring to let greens melt down but make sure they don't melt down too much - you still want some leafiness to them. Taste and adjust seasonings.
Serve!

These Spicy Beet Greens are simple and delicious and make a perfect side to a meal. We served them with a pork schnitzel, roasted portabello with blue cheese and thyme, and a simple tomato salad with Parmesan and chives.

First of all, don't let Bon Appetit magazine bully you into thinking that you can't serve portobellos anymore. They are awesome and always will be. I like to brush mine with extra virgin olive oil, red wine (or balsamic) vinegar, kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper. Then I roast or grill them, with blue cheese melting gloriously in the gills. Sprinkle with fresh thyme and serve. Also makes a great veggie burger.
There is no second of all.

MoosewoodMondays

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Satay-day Night Special

We had our first real summer day yesterday. Gloriously sunny and optimistic with just a gentle reminder of how that same sunshine induces fatigue - especially when it comes to cooking.

Enter the BBQ. The tool of summer.

But what if your plan is to drink margaritas on the deck all afternoon and you can't possibly face chopping and prepping after that?

No problem, prep early - marinate some great meats and have a satay party! Saveur Magazine has a great little variety of satays in their May issue and we sampled two, with accompanying dipping sauce of course.

They got prepped and marinated hours before cooking, leaving me extra time for important things. Like that margarita. And its friends.

When it was time to skewer and BBQ? I just popped some jasmine rice in the rice cooker and threw down some baby spinach. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. Maybe lime squeezy - to go with the theme. You get my point.

Satay Udang (Shrimp Satay)
Ground macadamia nuts enrich this spicy Singaporean-style shrimp satay. This recipe first appeared in Saveur Magazine's May 2011 issue, with the article The World of Satay.

MAKES 20 SKEWERS

1 1/2 lb. (about 40) medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 tbsp. fresh lime juice
1/2 cup chopped shallots
1 1/2 tbsp. dark brown sugar
1 tsp. kosher salt
8 Kaffir lime leaves, stemmed
5 macadamia nuts
4 cloves garlic, chopped
3 red Thai chiles, stemmed
1 3″ piece ginger, chopped
3 tbsp. peanut oil
1/3 cup coconut milk

In a bowl, toss shrimp and lime juice; set aside. Puree shallots, sugar, salt, lime leaves, nuts, garlic, chiles, and ginger in a small food processor. Heat oil in a 12″ skillet over medium-high heat; add paste. Cook, stirring, until oil separates from paste, 3–4 minutes. Stir in coconut milk. Cool. Stir into shrimp; chill 4 hours.

Build a hot charcoal fire in a grill. Thread 2 shrimp each on 20 skewers. Spoon marinade over shrimp; grill, turning, until charred, 3–5 minutes.

Saus Kacang Tanah (Javanese Peanut Sauce)
This creamy peanut sauce is perfect served with all satay. This recipe first appeared in Saveur Magazine's May 2011 issue, with the article The World of Satay.

MAKES ABOUT 2 1/2 CUPS

1 1/2 cups unsalted skinned roasted peanuts
6 tbsp. dark brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp. dried shrimp paste, roasted
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 Holland or fresno chile, stemmed, chopped
3/4 cup coconut milk
1 tbsp. cider vinegar
3/4 tsp. kosher salt

Heat peanuts in a 12″ skillet over medium heat; cook, stirring, until toasted, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a food processor and let cool; reserve skillet. Process until finely ground. Add sugar, shrimp paste, garlic, and chiles; process until very finely ground. Transfer paste to skillet and stir in coconut milk. Heat over medium heat, and cook, stirring, until oil begins to separate from paste, about 6 minutes. Stir in vinegar, salt, and 3/4 cup water; cook, stirring, until the consistency of pea soup, about 4 minutes. Let cool.

Chile-Rubbed Beef Satay
Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten created this intensely flavorful contemporary satay. This recipe first appeared in Saveur Magazine's May 2011 issue, with the article The World of Satay.

MAKES 12 SKEWERS

1/3 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup minced fresh cilantro
2 tbsp. grated orange zest
4 tsp. fish sauce
1 1/2 tsp. dark brown sugar
1 tsp. canola oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb. beef sirloin, cut into 1″-wide, 1/4″-thick slices
***I have noticed there is no mention of chile in this chile-rubbed recipe - so I added some teochow chile paste to mine. Also, I added some sweet onion to the skewer.

Puree soy sauce, cilantro, orange zest, fish sauce, sugar, oil, and garlic in a food processor until smooth. Toss paste and beef in a bowl; chill 4 hours.

Build a hot charcoal fire in a grill. Thread 1 piece of beef each on 12 skewers; grill, turning, until charred, about 5 minutes.


**Soak your skewers! If you are using bamboo, or other burnable wood-type skewers - let them soak for at least a half hour before cooking.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Sunflower Seed Bread with Rye Sourdough

Feeling a little nutty? I know I am!
This is a nice, chewy bread made nutty with the addition of toasted sunflower seeds and rye chops. It is excellent with cream cheese and cucumbers and makes a nice addition to a summer salad.

Yes, I still bake bread in the summer. In fact I am more likely to bake in the summer. Not because I am a masochist by nature, but in the coldest days of winter all I want to do is wrap myself up in the duvet and read. As I live in Canada, that actually accounts for a lot of days. Oh well, at least I am well read. Or well rested. You get my point.

You may find that your dough rises faster when it is hot and humid. You be the judge of when you think it is ready. Go on, I trust your judgement. Time and temperature are flexible variables; you may have to make adjustments for seasons. Just don't forget to let your water sit out overnight, uncovered, so that any chlorine (killer of natural yeasties) has dissipated. There, that's not so hard, is it? Now go bake some bread!

This bread has been Yeastspotted!
Sunflower Seed Bread with Rye Sourdough
adapted from Jeffrey Hamelman, Bread
for the Mellow Bakers

Sourdough (day 1)
Rye flour - 6.4 oz
Water - 5.1 oz
Mature sourdough culture - 2 Tbsp

Soaker (day 1)
Rye chops - 5.3 oz
Water - 5.3 oz

Dough (day 2)
Bread flour - 1lb, 4.3 oz
Sunflower seeds, toasted - 6.4 oz
Water - 15.2 oz
Sea salt - 3.5 tsp
Instant dry yeast - 2 tsp
Malt syrup - 2 tsp
Soaker - all
Sourdough - all

The night before:
Mix up your sourdough ingredients, cover and let sit overnight on the counter.
Mix up your soaker ingredients, cover and let sit out overnight beside your sourdough.
Don't let your significant other mess with these bowls. Or your cat.

The next day:
Sleep well? Good! Eat some breakfast and let's make some bread.
Everyone into the pool! And by pool I mean stand mixer. It helps if you break up the sourdough a bit. I'll wait.
Get out your dough hook and mix on low for 3 minutes. Turn up to medium and mix for another 3 minutes. Adjust flour/water if necessary. Turn out onto your lightly floured board and knead into a ball. Put in a bowl and cover, let rise 1 hour.
Divide into two, shape into loaves, cover and let rise another hour.
Preheat the oven to 440°F.
Score and bake for 35-45 minutes, until nicely browned and has an internal temperature of over 200°F.
Let cool on wire racks. Eat!

MellowBakers.com

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Armchair Novel Review - The Passage



Whew! This book is an epic journey.

800 pages, and everything you would want in a blockbuster summer read. Vampires, government conspiracies, military, plague, intrigue, survival and, at the bottom of Pandora's box - hope.

The Passage
by Justin Cronin

Paperback, 800 pages
Also available as an abridged audio CD, abridged audiobook download, unabridged audiobook download, eBook and a hardcover.

Where to start? The Passage takes place over the course of decades, beginning with a rounding up of marginal peoples for government/military experiments that go horribly wrong. We are left with a post-apocalyptic world fraught with danger and seemingly without hope. Colonies have to stick together and rebuild, create society anew, and wonder if anyone else is out there or how long they themselves will survive.

One strange little girl, abandoned at the age of six, seems to walk alone through the miles and decades that the book spans. What makes her special may be the key to humanity's survival.

~

If you have ever read Stephen King's The Stand, you will see some parallels in this book. It is at the same time very long and very quick reading. I found myself immersed, which is exactly what I want in a book like this. Sometimes breathlessly turning pages. There were times when my attention lagged, when I got a little confused as to all the characters, but for the most part The Passage consumed me, keeping me up late at night in its world and now has me waiting impatiently for the next one - The Twelve, due out next year.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

La migliore frittata di gamberetti e prezzemolo

La migliore frittata di gamberetti e prezzemolo - everything sounds so sexy in Italian. Someone could walk up to me and say, "I'm sorry but you are three months behind on your mortgage and the Sheriff is here to move you to a cardboard box under the overpass where your children will be too embarrassed to visit you and your only friends will be the rats that eat out of the same KFC dumpster as you", and as long as he says it in a slow Italian purr I will be his.

Italians of course gave us the frittata, which makes an awesome dinner. This one satisfied my lust for shrimp and lemon last night, with lots of herbal goodness. I added in some dill and chive to the parsley as my garden is looking extra effulgent and verdant in this week's deluge and I couldn't help myself. The more the merrier, I say. Since I made it for dinner, I served the frittata with roasted sweet potato and beet bites - sort of a healthy rainbow alternative to home fries. A salad would also be awesome, if you want to go lighter. Don't forget the wine, we are Italian after all. 

Buon Appetito!

Shrimp and Parsley Frittata
(la migliore frittata di gamberetti e prezzemolo)
Jamie's Italy by Jamie Oliver
for IHCC May Potluck
online source here

To be honest, I'm a bit fussy about my frittatas. But this one hits the nail right on the head, especially when you get nice fresh shrimp, giving you an incredible sweetness that perfumes the eggs. When I made this, I was putting the lemon zest in with the eggs and, by mistake, I squeezed the juice of a quarter of a lemon in as well. I thought I'd try it anyway, even though you're not supposed to mix eggs with citrus juice. I think the result is spectacular — a lemon curdy shrimpy frittata ... but in a nice way!
The other key to this is to use plenty of parsley. Feel free to make smaller or bigger frittatas — most of the good ones I've eaten have ended up 1 inch thick. Any thinner and it's not a frittata. Any thicker and I think it gets frumpy. You can serve frittatas cold as an antipasto or hot as a snack, or even instead of a pasta course.
P.S. This recipe also works brilliantly with crab or lobster.
~J.O.

Serves 2

Ingredients

• 6 large eggs, preferably organic
• sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
• a handful of fresh parsley leaves, finely chopped
• zest of 1 lemon
• juice of 1/4 of a lemon
• 1 heaping tablespoon freshly grated Parmesan cheese
• 6—7 oz. fresh shelled medium shrimp
• a good dollop of butter
• olive oil
• 1/2 a dried red chili, crumbled

Directions

Preheat the oven to 425°F.

In a bowl, whisk the eggs with a pinch of salt and pepper, then add the parsley, lemon zest and juice, and the Parmesan.

Roughly chop half the shrimp, leaving the rest whole, and add all of them to the bowl.

In a small, heavy, nonstick ovenproof pan, heat the butter with a good splash of oil until it begins to foam, then add all the egg mixture.

Slowly move a spoon around the eggs for about a minute on a medium heat, then put the pan into the oven. (You often get frittatas that are very well cooked, but I'd rather have it in a hot oven for a shorter amount of time so there's a little color on top and the middle's cooked but not absolutely set.)

Cook for 4 to 5 minutes, till slightly golden — it will rise slightly and will have a delicious lightness to it.

Sprinkle the chili over it and slide it onto a board.

Great served with a simple arugula salad, good bread, and a glass of wine.

IHCCJamieOliver
IHCC

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Armchair Novel Review - Vaclav & Lena

Vaclav & Lena
by Haley Tanner
Hardcover, 304 pages
Also available as an unabridged audio CD, unabridged audiobook download and an eBook

Two things that are a harder sell for me - novels written from a child's perspective, and novels in any kind of vernacular. So when Vaclav & Lena was recommended to me, I was somewhat intrigued... but not overly hopeful about a book that is about two 10-year-old Russian immigrant children. 

I was wrong. It happens.

Vaclav & Lena is the first novel from author Haley Tanner and it totally blew me away. Lovely and wonderful in its almost poetic simplicity, yet deep and engrossing at the same time. Once I got going I found it hard to put down, and I found myself thinking about the characters long after I finished. 

Vaclav is 10 years old. He is the son of two hard-working Russian immigrants in Brooklyn. They have come to America to give him a better life. He knows two things - that he is going to be a world-famous magician and that his best friend Lena will be his beautiful assistant. 
Lena is an orphan, one month younger than Vaclav and living with her aunt. She is petite and shy and struggles with the language. Vaclav looks out for her and is fiercely protective. They spend all their free time working on the magic act and planning their future.
One day Lena just disappears. 
Years later they find each other again, and Vaclav has to learn the truth about who his friend is and what has happened to her. 

The book is about love and friendship and magic and is well worth reading.

A conversation with Haley Tanner 


Tell us about your new novel, Vaclav & Lena.

Vaclav & Lena is the story of two children growing up in the Russian émigré community of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Vaclav is a precocious boy who has dreams of becoming a famous magician and Lena – who he is certain will be his best friend forever – is a troubled girl, imprisoned by her lack of an English vocabulary. Vaclav’s caring mother, Rasia, discovers a tragic secret about Lena’s home life and the two children are torn apart for several years. It is a story about how they navigate their lives away from each other and if and how they can acclimate to a life where they are reunited.

Vaclav, Lena and Rasia first appeared in a short story you wrote while getting your MFA in Creative Writing at The New School in 2007. How did that short story evolve into Vaclav & Lena? Did the characters change when the format did?

I wrote the short story for a class. It was, I think roughly ten pages, and it centered around this one moment in this little family – Vaclav and Lena performing a magic act for his parents. I just loved the atmosphere and the situation and to me, there was just a hint of a story to come. Then, when I was supposed to be moving on to other things, writing other stories for classes or workshops, I just kept coming back to Vaclav and Lena. I couldn’t leave them frozen at the beginning of their story. They had more things to do – I didn’t know what – and I had to find out.

There absolutely is a character that changed as the story became a novel. I never planned for Rasia, Vaclav’s mother, to be a main character or such a presence. She was in the original story as an obstacle to Vaclav and Lena’s plans and then, as I continued to write the novel, she kept barging into the story, insisting on getting whole chapters, and I completely fell in love with her.

How did you choose to make magic part of the story? Why does Houdini resonate so strongly with Vaclav and why does professional sword swallower Heather Holliday resonate so strongly with Lena?

It wasn’t a conscious choice for Vaclav to become a magician. It was just how I saw him – as a precocious little boy with a passion for an art that is widely considered to be outdated or out of fashion. However, once I thought about it a bit more I came to the conclusion that when writing books, there are things that just appear (“out of thin air” as Vaclav would say) and then acquire meaning later. Magicians are like story-tellers in that we all know that the quarter does not disappear, that the woman is not sliced in half, but we suspend our disbelief for a time and allow ourselves to be carried away. It is the same thing we do when we read a novel about a character we know to be fictional, but we cry and laugh and love along with them anyway.

Houdini is a perfect role model for Vaclav – there is the obvious parallel in his family’s journey to America and their ages upon arrival here – but there is also a power that comes from sheer stubbornness and determination. Houdini was a self-made man, and had a magical ability to perform and command large audiences. Vaclav, as a powerless little boy with an imperfect command of his new language, yearns for that power, for that status.

Lena and Heather…Heather is strong, beautiful, and she is in perfect control of her own sexuality. She is also (according to her stage persona) a runaway – and she’s made it! She’s survived, and is powerful like a superhero.

We hear Heather Holliday is a real person. Have you seen her perform?

She is a real person! She’s fantastic! I’ve seen her perform at the Sideshow Theatre, and it’s brilliant. Her act is, as Rasia says, perfectly revolting, and perfectly lovely. Everyone should get to the Sideshow Theatre – or wherever she’s performing (I heard she travels) – to see her.

Vaclav & Lena brings to life the Russian émigré community of Brighton Beach so vividly – what is your experience with the Brighton Beach community and how did you decide to write a novel around it?

The characters – Vaclav and Lena – came to me first, and their life was colored by what I was experiencing at the time. I was tutoring in Brighton Beach, and I sat at kitchen tables and helped these kids struggle over their synonyms, while their mothers walked in the door at 7:30, weighed down by shopping bags, and plopped the frozen block of borscht into a hot pot on the stove. All of that setting sort of seeped in to the story, and became part of who the characters were, but my interest was in the people first, and their ethnicity and their neighborhood were secondary. I was so focused on Vaclav and Lena, and who they were inside that it was only after I finished the book that I realized that the Russian community in Brighton Beach had become such a strong force in the book..

What kind of research, if any, did you do while writing Vaclav & Lena?

Almost none, aside from what crept into my mind through osmosis. I was making notes for the book while standing on subway platforms in Brighton Beach, waiting for the Q. People like Vaclav, Lena, Olga and Rasia were walking around me, and the supermarket smells were all around me – so I didn’t realize I was doing research – I just thought I was making notes for my book..

The voices of Vaclav, Lena, and Rasia are distinct and each beautifully done. Who was your favorite to write? Any that did not come easily?

Oh, Vaclav and Rasia are a pleasure to write – both of their voice came so easily. They’re such powerful, outspoken people with so much to say! Lena doesn’t find her voice for a long time, so she was tricky in her own very specific way. I’m also very protective of Lena, and very careful with her. I have an easier time writing anything that is as far from my experience as possible and as such, Vaclav and Rasia, were easy. However, Lena, especially as she grew older, became very difficult. I enjoy writing most when my imagination is engaged, so writing a seventeen-year old girl was difficult, because I just have far too much first-hand experience.

What writers have influenced you and did any specific books influence Vaclav & Lena?

My favorite writers are J.D. Salinger and Tom Robbins. I wouldn’t dare claim that either influenced Vaclav and Lena, but I know that J.D. Salinger (from Franny’s very first martini on her dreadfully boring date) made me want to write, and made me love creating characters. Tom Robbins inspired me to unhinge language and free words and metaphors from their dusty old cages. I can’t claim that I’ve done either, but those two made me think that writing books sounded worthy and like a pretty good thing to do.

Early readers of Vaclav & Lena have identified unconditional love as a theme – or even the theme – of the novel. Do you agree with that reading? Do you have particular thoughts on how that idea found its way organically into the novel.

I didn’t intend for there to be a theme; I think a lot of writers would say this: I just wanted to tell a good story. But it doesn’t surprise me that unconditional love stands out, or became a dominant thread. Just as I would wait for subway in Brighton Beach without realizing I was “doing research,” at the time I wrote the novel, I was living my own love story with my husband. Now I can see that it’s on every single page.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Bread Baking Babes make Stromboli!

As the mother to an eighteen year old boy, I am contractually obligated to make pizza once a week. Given the sheer volume of pizza going through my kitchen, you can imagine that I like to mix it up a bit. Fold it over and seal it up and you have calzones. Roll that baby up like a jelly roll and you have Stromboli.

Always a huge hit in our home and this month Elle of Feeding My Enthusiasms has challenged all Bread Baking Babes and Buddies to try their hand at this family favourite.

Since Elle was inspired by my good friend Heather of Girlichef for this challenge, and since Heather and I share a Forging challenge site together, I decided to Mexi up my fillings with the homemade chorizo she posted this month. I sautéed the chorizo and tossed it with smoked onion, poblanos and jalapeños, and laid it all down on a bed of pizza sauce and mozzarella for a Mexi-Stromboli. I am Canadian, and we can get away with anything. 

However you fill yours, try this fun and delicious bread roll yourself!

Stromboli
adapted from Ultimate Bread by Eric Treuille & Ursula Ferrigno
with thanks to Girlichef!

Ingredients:
2 tsp. dry yeast (1 packet dry yeast...I used fast acting) (7 grams)
1 ¼ c. water (268 grams)
3 ½ c. unbleached flour (470 grams)
1 ½ tsp. salt (11 grams)
3 Tbs. olive oil (38 grams)

For the filling and topping:

8 oz. smoked swiss cheese (226 grams)
3 cloves garlic, minced 8 oz. Prosciutto, sliced thin (226 grams)
4 oz. pepperoni, sliced thin (113 grams)
Handful of fresh basil leaves
1 tsp. coarse salt
3 sprigs rosemary, stems removed
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

This Stromboli has been Yeastspotted!
Sprinkle yeast into 1 c. of the water, in small bowl. Leave for 5 minutes to then stir to dissolve.

Mix the flour and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in center and pour in dissolved yeast and the oil. Mix in flour from sides of well. Stir in reserved water, as needed, to form a soft, sticky dough.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead until smooth, silky, and elastic...~10 mins. Pour dough in a clean, oiled bowl and cover with clean kitchen towel. Let rise until doubled in size, 1 1/2-2 hours.

Punch down. Let rest 10 minutes.

Shape into a 14" x 8" rectangle. Cover w/ clean towel and let rest another 10 minutes.

Spread your cheeses, meats, garlic and basil evenly over dough. Roll up the dough like a Swiss roll, starting at one of the shorter sides, but without rolling too tightly.

Place on oiled baking sheet. Use a skewer or a carving fork to pierce several holes through the dough to the baking sheet. Sprinkle with 1 Tbs. of olive oil, salt, rosemary and pepper.

Bake in preheated (400 degrees F) oven for 1 hour, until golden. Drizzle remaining olive oil over top. Slice and serve!!

The Bread Baking Babes

Moosewood Mondays: Punajuurisalaatti

I only partly chose this because of the name. Okay, more than partly. I am also partial to beets, beets are cool. And healthy.

This simple preparation of a condiment-like salad is the perfect accompaniment to your smörgåsbord or seisova pöytä or, you know, buffet. Finnish in origin, this salad is zippy and zingy and earthy at the same time.

You can use prepared horseradish if you need to, but the fresh is so much fun to work with. Just keep it like you do ginger - in the freezer, wrapped in plastic. Then just use your Microplane to grate it fresh into your dishes, no need to even peel it.

Hyvää ruokahalua!

Punajuurisalaatti
Beet and Horseradish Salad
adapted from Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant

3 medium beets, or 6 small- boiled in their jackets and cooled
3 Tbsp plain yogurt
1½-2 Tbsp freshly grated horseradish
¼  tsp each: sugar, kosher salt, fresh black pepper - or to taste
Squeeze lemon juice- to taste
Greens, for serving

Peel and julienne the cooled beets, toss with the rest of the ingredients. Chill to let flavours combine, at least 1 hour.
Serve on a bed of small greens or with herbs.

MoosewoodMondays