Friday, May 30, 2008

A Day Late and a Dollar Short

See the cute kitties in the sunbeam? I put them there to distract you from the fact that I have no "real" May finished object. I'm hoping the cute kitties will help you agree with me that the little project I finished on June 1 can count for May :) I had been whining about my bangs (my hair stylist loves me in bangs, and I do, too, but since I can't remember the last time I had time to style my hair beyond getting it damp so it's not sticking up, the bangs drive me nuts), so I made a headband. This delightful number with some stash Pakucho organic cotton. I quite liked the pattern, although the Pakucho was extra splitty this time, and every ssk was miserable. This is why it wasn't done on May 31. I came very close because Flashdance was on TV Land and I was watching it and knitting, but Matt is less enamored of that film genre, particularly when Lilah's sleeping is awful and it's late, so I skipped the end of the movie and the last few rows.

Reading: I keep re-posting my reviews that are on On My Bookshelf, a blog that a friend of mine started and to which I contribute (so much fun!). I'm thinking that's inefficient, so I'm going to try just linking directly to my reviews over there instead of cutting and pasting. I'll still list the books I've read, but I'll send you there for reviews now.

Candy Cane Murders by Joanne Fluke, Laura Levine, and Leslie Meier
Through the Grinder by Cleo Coyle, A Late Phoenix by Catherine Aird, A Bicycle Built for Murder by Kate Kingsbury, and Withering Heights by Dorothy Cannell
Death Is In The Air and For Whom Death Tolls by Kate Kingbury, Strangled Prose by Joan Hess

Writing; Not much to report here, sadly. Lilah slept through the night two nights ago, though, which I'm hoping she'll start doing regularly so I'm not tired all the time.

Cooking: Wow, do I have a lot to post here. I made two different coffee cake recipes from the Cafe Nervosa Cookbook, a Frasier-inspired book that I've posted about before--Deep Dish Cheesecake Coffee Cake (yes, it's as good as it sounds) and Silken Sour Cream Coffee Cake. I made some changes to the sour cream one, and I was very pleased with how it turned out, so I'll post the recipe at the end.

I made Hedonistic Fudgies, which are in fact both hedonistic and fudgy. The instructions don't say, but bake at 350. I used unsalted butter, so I added 1/2 tsp salt. I used Ghirardelli's 60% chocolate chips, my favorite. These were absolutely amazing. They took 7-9 minutes in my oven. Keep an eye on them so you don't overbake. I scooped out the batter with a tablespoon and ended up with 2 1/2 dozen cookies. These have received rave reviews from everyone who's tried them, and they are wonderful, slightly crisp on the outside and gooey on the inside, and unbelievably chocolatey.

I made Pasta With White Beans, Greens, and Lemon and a Malaysian noodle recipe, two standards from Cooking Light. I also made pesto from the bounty of basil at the store right now. I froze half. If it stays cheap or my own plants grow any faster, I'll make more. It's always nice to have pesto once the weather is cool again, and freezing it works well. We had friends over for dinner, and I wanted to show off a bit, so I made:

Crema de Guacamole Soup from Super Natural Cooking
Roasted Chile-Jack Cheese Tamales With Tomatillo Salsa
My cheating Mexican Pinto Beans (made with two cans of pinto beans, liquid and all, a pressed clove of garlic, a bay leaf, and a bit of cumin, simmered for 30 minutes)
Margarita Angel Cake (from Cooking Light) with Strawberry Lime Sauce (from Professional Pastry Chef)

I was really happy with how well everything turned out. Lilah loved the soup (wow, that soup is good), the tomatillo salsa, beans, and the cake, but I think tamale was too dry for her. For the soup, you're supposed to fry strips of corn tortilla for the topping, but I hate frying and I had pumpkin seeds on hand, so I toasted them for the crunch factor. If you've never made tamales, it's really fun and people are always impressed!

I also made this curry recipe. Well, sort of. Matt's a yellow curry fan and I'm a red curry person, and since neither of us is really into green curry, I used yellow. I served it with rice noodles instead of rice. I used green beans instead of asparagus. With all those changes, it's hard to say why exactly it wasn't a big hit with us, but looking back at the picture, it's a light, brothy kind of meal, and that's sort of why we didn't like it. It was okay, just not great.

Silken Sour Cream Coffee Cake
adapted from Cafe Nervosa: The Connoisseur's Cookbook

1 cup butter, softened
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup sour cream
2 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp almond extract
1/2 cup sliced almonds
2 TBL sugar
1 tsp cardamon
Sifted powdered sugar

Beat butter until fluffy at medium speed in the bowl of an electric mixer. Add sugar and beat until incorporated. Add eggs and beat until pale yellow. Stir in sour cream until blended.

Combine flour and next three ingredients in a small bowl. Gradually add to butter mixture until well blended, then stir in extracts. Spoon half of batter into a greased and floured 8-inch tube pan.

Combine almonds, sugar, and cardamon in a small bowl. Sprinkle half over batter in pan. Top with remaining batter, then sprinkle remaining almond mixture over batter.

Bake at 350 for 45-55 minutes, until toothpick inserted in cake comes out clean. Cool in pan on wire rack 15 minutes, then remove from pan and let cool completely. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve warm.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

What's next, PBJ in the VCR?

My shiny new black MacBook is fast and pretty and slim and did I mention shiny? But when I tried to pop in a DVD for the first time (X-Files Season 2, if you must know--I like to watch TV on my laptop in the kitchen while I cook), I met resistance and couldn't get the slot to suck in the DVD. I made an appointment for my local Genius Bar at the Apple Store, where a well-groomed, polite young man (who looked approximately 12) took my laptop (sob) and promised a phone call when I could pick it back up. So I've been on the slow iBook for three days. The Apple guy called yesterday with great news--I can pick it up any time! Yay! He goes on to mention (with the sound of held-back laughter in his voice) that the problem was a Marshall Field's gift card inserted in the drive. Ahem. Did I mention that I had given Lilah used gift cards to play with when I gave her my old purse and wallet? And one of them was from Marshall Field's? Anyway, the computer will have to move upstairs or out of her reach, obviously.

Knitting: Plugging along on Sock #2. I need to cast on for something else, too, but I'm not sure I'm up for Henley Perfected right now, and I can't decide on another Mission Possible thing that sounds good. I may have a liberating yarn/book giveaway to diminish my stashes a bit. I don't know that I actually want to use the Rowanspun 4 ply, even if it is an awesome bright red. Someone else might do better with it. Same with the lavender wool/silk. We'll see.

Reading: I read THE FUNNIEST BOOK in the history of the world! Okay, maybe that's an exaggeration, but Bobbie Faye's Very (Very, Very, Very) Bad Day by Toni McGee Causey had me laughing out loud. With a clever, official-looking map at the beginning labeled "Louisiana State Insurance Archive of Bobbie Faye Sumrall Disasters (Southwest Region)," you know you're going to be suspending disbelief. Each chapter has a quote about Bobbie Faye, and the first quote is, "You know how some people are born to Greatness? Well, Bobbie Faye Sumrall woke up one morning, kicked Greatness in the teeth, kneed it in the balls, took it hostage, and it's been begging for mercy ever since," attributed to "a former Louisiana mayor after Bobbie Faye accidentally ran her car into his office, knocking pages of fraud evidence into the street, which helped land him in Federal prison." Those two components at the very beginning could be setting us up for a fun ride or trying to compensate for a lackluster novel. Fortunately for us, it's the first!

Bobbie Faye is having the worst day of her life, and for someone inadvertently attracted to disaster like a moth to a flame, that's saying something. She wakes up in the morning to her five-year-old niece remarking that there's a swimming pool inside. She's caring for her niece while her sister is drying out, as ordered by the courts, and her trailer has flooded because her no-good brother Roy hasn't fixed the washing machine. The Sumralls have been fixtures in Lake Charles, Louisiana ("if someone had labeled it 'home of the hard drinkers who make Mardi Gras revelers look like big fluffy candy asses,' it might have staggered to attention and saluted") for generations, and Bobbie Faye is the latest in a long line of Contraband Days Queens since her mother died, complete with a battered tiara. It turns out that Roy has been kidnapped by someone demanding the worthless tiara, but when Bobbie Faye takes it out of the safety-deposit box (it may be worthless, but she didn't want her sister hocking it for booze), she loses it to bank robbers. She takes a guy hostage and goes in pursuit of the robbers, with the FBI and local police (led by her ex-husband of all people) following closely behind. This is a wild ride with abundant humor, a touch of mystery (who *is* this guy she took hostage? why would anyone want that tiara this badly?), and over-the-top action. Can Bobbie Faye find the tiara, save her brother, keep temporary custody of her niece, avoid mushy thoughts about her handsome hostage, and survive this day? I can't think of anyone who wouldn't compulsively read this one to find out!

I forgot to mention that I read On What Grounds by Cleo Coyle, the first in the Coffeehouse series. I had read this and maybe one of the sequels ages ago. It's a decent cozy mystery series with enticing recipes. A few things bug me. It starts out with a prologue from the stalker's point-of-view a la James Patterson or Jonathan Kellerman, which I think is super cheesy. Despite throwing around Italian terms like someone who knows what she's doing, Coyle (or her editor) has used the wrong accent over the 'e' in the Italian word 'caffe,' (It should be the opposite accent of the French cafe, but I can't figure out how to do diacritical marks in Blogger) and spelled 'baci' (which means 'kisses') bocci. There are other typos in plain old English, typical of this genre's mediocre editing. Despite some annoyances, the book is kind of cute and I enjoyed the coffee information, which I thought complemented, rather than distracted from, the narrative flow. Clare Cosi returns from suburban New Jersey to manage once again The Village Blend, an historic coffeehouse in New York City at the request of her former mother-in-law. You can bet the ex-husband will be around to bug her/be strangely attractive. One morning, Clare arrives at the coffeehouse to find it empty and dark. She finds her employee, Annabel, dead at the bottom of the basement steps. The police are treating the death as a tragic accident, but Clare thinks differently. Also, she thinks the detective is pretty cute. Typical cozy mystery investigating ensues, in more-interesting-than-average-cozy fashion. I'll read the second one, Through the Grinder, soon.

I also read "The Twelve Desserts of Christmas" by Joanne Fluke, one of four novellas in the holiday romance collection Sugar and Spice (available for the cost of shipping--used on I didn't read the other three, which are more typical romance, but I thought the Joanne Fluke story, featuring two teachers stuck with six kids at a boarding school over the holidays, was a cute confection. Hannah Swensen delivers desserts to the group and solves an innocuous little mystery. Most of the recipes are title recipes from previous books, but a couple may be new (I'd have to check Sugar Cookie Murder, which has tons). If (like me) you're waiting for Carrot Cake Murder to come out in paperback, this is a nice little diversion.

Writing: Not much. Sleeping hasn't been great lately, so I'm tired all the time again. Lilah had one night of almost ten hours uninterrupted sleep, but nothing near that since. More like 4-5, max. Ugh.

Cooking: I made this fantastic Citrus Parmesan Farro Salad. I kept everything separate for non-soggy leftovers. I used one cup cooked farro (which is similar to, or identical to, depending on whom you ask, spelt) for 2 Weight Watchers points, and 2 TBL dressing for 3 points. I managed to grab arugula instead of spinach, and it's not as good wilty as spinach is, but this was still a nice salad (with 2 TBL almonds - 2 points and 1 oz. goat cheese - 2 points, it was a nice, filling lunch). The next day, I used 1 cup farro mixed with some leftover steamed veggies (zucchini, yellow squash, and snap peas), 2 TBL of the dressing, 1/4 cup feta cheese and 2 TBL kalamata olives. Delish. You really can't beat homemade vinaigrettes, and the combinations of flavors are endless.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

I Made a Sock, and, Random Stuff From the Internet

Here is the first of Matt's birthday socks. It does not fit Matt. It does almost fit me, though it's a bit big. Hmmm. I definitely have to unpick the bindoff, which is too tight (Gah, I always do that! Even when I bind off over two needles and make sure not to pull tight, I still have a tight bindoff.) and maybe try washing? I'm not sure how much they will stretch. And if they don't, will I rip out the entire sock, which took me forever, and cast on with more stitches, or will I finish this pair for me, and get another ball for Matt's socks? The suspense continues! Tune in...erm, sometime later, as I have no set blogging schedule. We're halfway through May, and Mission Possible is going okay, but not great.

Have you ever been to The Comics Curmudgeon? We don't get the newspaper, and I don't follow the comics anymore since Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side left (although I love Get Fuzzy and we always get the treasuries and one-a-day calendar), but I LOVE Josh's comics commentary on this site. He posts the day's noteworthy comics and pillories the bad ones while chuckling at the good ones. As a bonus, the comments are hysterical, but I usually don't read them all, just the Comments of the Week meta-posts. I'm now familiar with characters and strips I've never actually read, like Apartment 3-G and Hi and Lois, which have hilarious trends and really funny quirks to mock. Anyway, head over if you need a laugh. Start with the archives to get acclimated.

I know this isn't cooking-related, but it's food-related. A food blog (metablog, really) that I read linked to a Men's Health article about secrets the restaurant industry doesn't want you to know. They're annoyed the Gov. Schwarzenegger didn't sign legislation requiring chain restaurants to post nutritional information on their menus. The "secrets" seemed pretty obvious to me, and I wondered if the average American is really so nutritionally uneducated that he thinks anything deep-fried is healthy, or that something called a One Pound Burder could possibly be anything less than a calorie and saturated fat disaster. Maybe it's that Matt and I don't eat out frequently, but while it's nice when a restaurant does offer healthy options and tell you what they are on the menu, I just make the best choice I can or splurge for that one meal. Usually I splurge, because we eat out maybe once a week. If I really want to guarantee a healthy choice, I get a salad with no cheese or croutons and the dressing on the side. I also feel it's sort of unfair that New York is making chain restaurants post their calorie counts, but the law doesn't apply to local restaurants. Also, many chains already post their nutritional info online. When I'm counting my Weight Watchers points, I just look it up ahead of time. Any thoughts on this? I guess anything that makes it easier for people to eat healthy is good, but do people actually want to eat healthy when they go out? Would they order something else if they saw the calorie count on their favorite dish in black and white? Is this more likely to help or hurt chain restaurants, the only ones required to post?

Now that you're totally bored and your eyes have glazed over, I'll post fun book reviews, kitties snuggling, and a recipe!

Reading: A negative reviewer on Amazon gave Savannah Blues by Mary Kay Andrews a single star and lambasted it with, "If you're craving a Southern fried version of Nancy Drew and her pals, then carry on." Well, obviously my taste is not as refined as this reviewers because while I agreed with her assessment, I thought this book was great fun, even with some flaws, but I love Nancy Drew, too! I would characterize it as Southern Chick Lit With Mystery. Anyway, the story is about Weezie, a divorcee who won the carriage house behind her carefully renovated once-home (which her husband and his new fiancee, the atrocious Caroline, now live). Weezie is a "picker," scouring yard sales and dumpsters for hidden treasures that she can fix up and sell to antiques dealers. Sneaking into an estate sale early to answer a call of nature, she stumbles over Caroline's body and is promptly arrested for the murder. The story is slowed a bit by chapters from the point of view of Uncle James, Weezie's attorney, which were really unnecessary and I can't believe they weren't edited out. Weezie, her best friend Bebe, and Daniel, the attractive chef at Bebe's restaurant, set out to solve the murder themselves and clear Weezie's name. There really wasn't much suspense in this one, but the bumbling crime-solving trio, Southern charm, and insight into the antiques business made it a lot of fun. I recommend this as an excellent beach read.

After reading Savannah Blues, I picked up Savannah Breeze, the sequel, which details Bebe's life following her financial ruin at the hands of a handsome con man (she's distracted by family issues at the time). Apparently, Ms. Andrews has trouble deciding which story she's telling, because in this one, too, there are chapters from a secondary character's point of view--this time, Weezie's. I found this distracting and didn't think it added to the story at all, but other than that, I thought this was even more fun than the first book. Bebe discovers that she is now owner of the Breeze Motel on Tybee Beach (the con man, Reddy, hadn't had time to unload it before splitting), and she decides to make a go of renovating and running the Breeze. With the help of Weezie and the Breeze's on-site manager, the handsome and unrefined Harry, Bebe sets out to get back what Reddy has stolen from her when the police decline to pursue him. Another fun beach read.

Deep Dish by Mary Kay Andrews: Okay, after three books, I have to say I quite like Mary Kay Andrews. I think I actually liked Savannah Blues and Savannah Breeze a bit better than Deep Dish because I enjoy the mystery component, which is absent from Deep Dish, but Deep Dish was fun Southern chick lit. This one is set partially in Atlanta, too, which is fun when Gina is stuck in traffic on I-285. Hahaha! I'm always stuck in traffic on I-285! Gina has a regional cooking show produced by her boyfriend, Scott, that is canceled when Scott is found sleeping with the show's sponsor's wife. Oops. But it turns out that Food Network...erm, I mean The Cooking looking for a Southern cooking show to add to their lineup. They're in town to look at Tate's kill 'em and grill 'em show (which is called Vittles, a really lame name--Kill 'Em and Grill 'Em would have been better) and decide to take a look at Gina. Soon Gina and Tate are in competition for the time slot in an Iron Chef kind of battle out on an island (yes, really). Tate and Gina go between attraction to each other and competitive dislike, and there's little suspense--if you can't tell they're going to end up together, you've probably never read chick lit before. There's also little suspense on the outcome of the cooking show, though Andrews throws in some unexpected challenges that bring in some laughs. The development of Tate and Gina's relationship from competitors to ready to get married isn't all that fleshed out, but I'm used to that in chick lit. All of a sudden, the man and woman are in love...whatever. I thought this was a cute, breezy summer read, but I'd wait until it's in paperback (it was lent to me, or I wouldn't have read it yet!).

Percy Jackson and the Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan: The fourth installment of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series is action-packed, funny, clever, and original, with character and plot developments we've been waiting for since Book 1, The Lightning Thief. Percy is a clever boy (I think he's 12 in book 1) who's been kicked out of multiple schools, has ADHD and dyslexia, and a knack for trouble. In The Lightning Thief, he learns he's a half-blood, the son of a Greek god, and discovers there are others like him at Camp Half Blood. If you haven't read the series, I don't want to give away too many details of the plot of Book 4. Battle of the Labyrinth opens with Percy's orientation at his new school, which is equipped with monster cheerleaders (yes, that's literal) before heading off to Camp Half-Blood, which is in danger like never before. A chunk of this installment takes place in the Labyrinth, the monster-infested, ever-changing maze underneath the U.S. Any juvenile fantasy is compared to Harry Potter these days, and I have to say, I love both series. Percy Jackson is not derivative of Harry Potter, and Riordan manages a fresh and funny take on ancient stories (the Greek myths). I can't recommend this series and this installment highly enough, and I can't wait for Book 5 (and it's very clear there will be a Book 5, though I believe that will be the last).

Writing: Yeah, I wish. A little while traveling, and some good subplot thinking-about, but not much in the way of page count.

Cooking: I made Penne Puttanesca adapted from this recipe. Of course, I made changes. I used a can of Muir Glen Fire Roasted Crushed Tomatoes instead of the whole tomatoes. I added some dried basil and oregano. And I used the olive brine--I don't care if it tastes the same, I'm not putting soy sauce in pasta. It was delish! Even Lilah loved it.

I made these amazing scones! I hosted a Playground Committee meeting, and I like to feed them. I made one scone with blackberry preserves and the other with apricot, and both were amazing.

I haven't ever posted my fried rice recipe, apparently. I adapted it from a side dish recipe in Gourmet, and I make it all the time. It's less greasy and unhealthy than restaurant versions, and it's endlessly variable. Add any of your favorite vegetables. I sometimes use frozen edamame instead of the peas for a higher protein dish. I often stir fry chopped carrots and/or mushrooms with the onions, and I sometimes use a pound of firm tofu, drained and cubed, in place of the eggs. If using tofu, just add along with the onions and stir fry until slightly browned. Mushroom-broccoli fried rice is great, too, just cook the broccoli for a couple of minutes before adding the onions and mushrooms. I like the serve the basic version with stir fry, like the sesame-soy version here, made with tofu, broccoli, baby corn, carrot, and bean sprouts. Obviously, I use veggie broth instead of chicken.

Easy, Lightened Fried Rice

1 TBL + 1 tsp vegetable or peanut oil
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 bunch green onions, white and light green parts sliced thinly
1/2 cup bamboo shoots (I use half a can of sliced bamboo shoots, yummy julienne pieces)
4 cups cold cooked rice (I use jasmine, but I should use brown rice or try another grain like millet sometime)
1 cup green peas, thawed
1 tsp salt
2 tsp dark sesame oil

Heat 1 tsp oil over medium high heat and add eggs. Cook until, well, cooked, then remove to a plate lined with paper towels.

Heat 1 TBL oil over medium high heat. Add onions and cook 2 minutes. Add bamboo shoots and rice and stir fry until heated through. Add peas, salt, and sesame oil and stir well. Stir in eggs. Serve with soy sauce. Serves 4.