Home - is where I want to be / But I guess I'm already there /I come home -
she lifted up her wings /
Guess that this must be the place...
- Talking Heads, "Naive Melody"

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Goal Roundup: January

The year is off to a good start:
  • Financial: A (met goal)
  • Health: F (Maybe I should forget about this one…)
  • Food: A (Barefoot Contessa. Flavors of Tuscany. Moosewood Daily Special. Another Barefoot Contessa)
  • Reading: A (Castle Perilous. What We Eat When We Eat Alone. Iorich)
  • Writing: A (Lots of feedback coming on Book 1, have started revision; Book 3 up to 48k words.)
  • Birthdays: A (Family birthday duly remembered)

3. Iorich

I hate to say this, but I am starting to wonder if Brust is losing his touch. I liked this one a lot better than the previous book (Jhegaala), but it felt rushed and a bit sloppy. The plot was okay to my mind, and it was nice to see Vlad back in his element, to meet up with characters we haven't seen in a while (I am fond of Kiera, though I almost wish Vlad had never found out, as I'm getting tired of the winking). I was astonished and somewhat peeved to find that we have skipped eight years in what I think of as the mainline continuity. We do finally get to see Cawti and young Vlad, though in a somewhat perfunctory fashion.

Perfunctory is also the word I want to use to describe the ending to Iorich. I think it would have been more interesting if Vlad had screwed it up, to be honest--had gotten the wrong guy, or something like that. For all of the years and the weird things he's been through, in this book he seemed to be operating on an autopilot keyed to the first couple of books; I'm not seeing the growth I would have expected to see with such a time lapse.

There is a lot of snappy dialog, lots of bits that I liked, and things move along briskly to a happy ending, but as a whole work...? I am starting to worry that Brust has no idea where to take the series at this point. There were Vlad's early years, and those were fine, and then his life sort of fell apart and we got into the whole massive meta-plot with the gods and the Jenoine and the Great Weapons, and then... well, I have no idea what happened, but we seem to be back in a new stasis, forward in time.

Vlad has been on the run from the entire Jhereg forever now (and yet manages to spend this book running around Adrilankha without a major problem), and has now managed to piss off the Left Hand as well as the Right. He's in a completely untenable position, it's getting a little old for this reader, and I'm not sure the author has a plan to get him out of it.

Of course, he also has a Great Weapon, which has yet to do anything, so far as I've noticed. It does, if I remember the early years of the series correctly, offer Vlad a hedge against the fact that the Jhereg wants to destroy his soul, and I will be quite interested to see if it is ever so employed.

Basically I enjoyed this book, I just wish that we would get some kind of resolution, or even discernable forward motion, on... something.

Barefoot Contessa Seafood Gratin

For this week's "cook from a book" goal recipe, I turned once again to the Barefoot Contessa and somehow landed on this as something that would be different from my usual cooking, and somewhat fun to make. I was planning to work from home that day, so I would have the extra time to fuss in the kitchen.

I suspect that for most people, this is one of those "use every pot you own" type recipes--I certainly used most of mine, along with an army of prep bowls. The result, however, was probably the best thing I have made in months. This was, to my mind, restaurant-quality stuff. Maybe not the French Laundry, but a decent restaurant.

I made a fair number of changes. I don't like shrimp, and for only two of us 1 1/2 lbs would have been way too much anyway, so I used bay scallops and cod.  I wasn't about to go looking for fresh tarragon in January; instead, I sprinkled some herbes de Provence among the bread crumbs. And I don't own any gratin dishes, so I used a relatively small baking dish.

It was amazing. I took a picture, which I will add to this post at some point.

The only other thing I want to mention is that this is really, really, really rich. So if you're making it for a dinner party or something, make sure dessert is on the light side!

1 cup seafood stock or clam juice
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons good white wine, such as Chablis, divided
3 tablespoons tomato puree
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
8 ounces raw shrimp, peeled, deveined, and cut in half crosswise
8 ounces raw halibut, cut into1-inch chunks
8 ounces cooked lobster meat, cut into 1-inch chunks
7 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 cups julienned leeks, white and light green parts (2 large)
1 1/2 cups julienned carrots (3 carrots)
1 cup panko (Japanese dried bread crumbs)
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan
2 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon leaves
1 tablespoon minced garlic (2 cloves)

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Place 4 individual gratin dishes on sheet pans. (If recipe is doubled serve it in a 14 by 9 1/4-inch oval gratin dish.)
  2. Combine the stock, cream, 1/2 cup of the wine, the tomato puree, and saffron in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and add the shrimp. After 3 minutes, use a slotted spoon to remove the shrimp to a bowl. Add the halibut to the stock for 3 minutes, until just cooked through, and remove to the same bowl. Add the cooked lobster to the bowl.
  3. Continue to cook the sauce until reduced by half, about 12 minutes. Mash 1 tablespoon of the butter together with the flour. Whisk the butter mixture into the sauce along with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Simmer, stirring constantly, until thickened, about 5 minutes. Set aside.
  4. Melt 3 tablespoons of the butter in a medium saute pan. Add the leeks and carrots and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes, until softened. Add the remaining 3 tablespoons of wine, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and cook for 5 to 10 minutes, until tender. Set aside.
  5. Combine the panko, Parmesan, parsley, tarragon, and garlic. Melt the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter and mix it into the crumbs until they're moistened.
  6. Divide the seafood among the 4 gratin dishes. Strew the vegetables on top of each dish. Pour the sauce equally over the seafood and vegetables and spoon the crumbs evenly on top. Bake for 20 minutes, until the top is browned and the sauce is bubbly. Serve hot.

Three Vegetarian Recipes

Although obviously not vegetarian, we do eat that way three or four times a week, most weeks. Last week we had three winners, at least one of which I had never made before (another one we couldn't remember for sure). So as part of today's triple-post, I give you:
 Half a week's worth of wonderful vegetables right there!

    Monday, January 25, 2010

    2. What We Eat When We Eat Alone

    A delightful little dessert of a book, this makes no pretense to being a scientific survey. Instead it muses, in a pleasant, rambling fashion that recalls the best after-dinner discussions, exactly on what the title says: the things we feed ourselves when there is no one else to take into account, and why. There are recipes, and many of them sound worth making, but this isn't really a cookbook, more a browsing book.

    Sunday, January 24, 2010

    Happy, Happy, Happy!!!

    Yesterday I got a crit on the entire Book 1 draft. It was from someone whose work I had read a week or so back (we had agreed to do a swap); I was very impressed by her writing, and so nervous about what she might think of mine that I went off and did housework instead of reading her feedback.

    This morning I finally opened the file. She wasn't shy about pointing out the problems, but she also said such positive things that I am in, I don't know, a state of shock? This is someone who is under no obligation to be nice to me, offering an opinion that I am capable of writing publishable work*, that the novel has issues but it also has merit. I am either going to cry or sing. :)

    *It does not of course follow that it ever will be, but hey -- can't hurt.

    Saturday, January 23, 2010

    Cauliflower, Cheese, and Tomato Soup

    I have made some very good soups from Moosewood Restaurant Daily Special. This is not one of them. I'm not going to bother typing it out unless someone asks for it. It wasn't actually bad, but the texture was extremely cauliflower-y (and I like cauliflower), and for a soup with so many ingredients, it suffered overall from a lack of identifiable flavor--just a big muddle of vegetables.

    This was week 3's cookcook, by the way; so far, I have managed to adhere to my goal!

    Polenta with a Wild Mushroom Sauce

    Wow, have I gotten behind on this blog. The "year of cookbooks" continued into week two with Flavors of Tuscany, a lovely book I got for Christmas about a million years ago.

    I had only tried polenta once, at a restaurant in Somerville, and was underwhelmed by the experience. I thought it was time to give it another try. I had intended to make the lemon chicken from this book as well, but I forgot to plan for marinating, so used my old Bistro Chicken standby instead for the entree, and a big romaine salad. The polenta and sauce were a first course.

    I'm not going to include the polenta recipe, as the stuff I bought turned out to be instant, and whatever kind you use you can figure out how to cook it. The instant seemed fine to me, but I'm not exactly an expert on the stuff.

    1 1/2 oz dried porcini mushrooms
    1 lb sweet Italian sausage, preferably fennel-flavored
    2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
    1 medium onion, minced
    1 medium carrot, peeled and minced
    1 stalk celery, minced
    1/4 flat-leaf parsley
    1 28-oz can plum tomatoes with their liquid, coarsely chopped
    1 tsp finely minced fresh rosemary
    2 sage leaves, finely minced
    salt and pepper to taste
    1. Cover the dried porcini with very warm water in a bowl and set aside to soak for 30 minutes.
    2. While soaking, slice the sausages no more than 1/2 inch thick. In a heavy skillet over medium-high heat, saute the slices in the oil until they lose their pink color. Set aside to drain on paper towels.
    3. Drain the mushrooms in a sieve lined with cheesecloth placed over a bowl to catch the liquid. Rinse the drained mushrooms under running water, then chop them coarsely. Reserve the mushrooms and the soaking liquid.
    4. Add the onion, carrot, and celery to the oil in the skillet and saute gently until soft but not brown. Stir in the tomatoes, rosemary, and sage. Simmer gently, uncovered, until thick, 20-25 minutes, then add the mushroom liquid, the mushrooms, and the sausage (note: since it doesn't tell you how much liquid to use for the mushrooms, this is a judgment call). Continue cooking, uncovered, 15-20 minutes. The sauce should be very thick. Add salt and pepper if necessary. 
    We found the polenta sort of "meh." OK, yes, it's a basic grain, it's supposed to be bland. Not sure what all the excitement is about the stuff. The sauce was quite good. We had the leftovers on pasta the following night. The leftover polenta was warmed in some butter and, with the addition of some grated cheese, made for a fine lunch.

    Monday, January 11, 2010

    1. Castle Perilous

    I am going to steal an idea from my friend Brian and number the books as I post about them; that should make it easier to keep track of whether or not I'm meeting my modest little goal.

    Which is off to a modest little start. Castle Perilous is an old book, my edition was published back in '88. I'm pretty sure that I haven't read it before. I have no memory of buying it, and must have picked it up during my tenure at the Harvard Book Store. It has two stripes on the bottom, indicating that it has been sold there twice as a used book, and they're going to get it back again if they want it. It was an undemanding read, but most of the time I was doing so all I could think of was how my new coterie of critiquers would rip into it.

    The characters barely exist as such. They are bodies that do things (mostly running), not people. They spend most of their time being lost, complaining about being lost, and eating. The plot is simplistic. The villains verge on motiveless. The ending, I found enormously unsatisfying. It might make a halfway decent fantasy-action film--the shallow characterization and Lots of Shiny Stuff would be pretty easy to translate--but it's an inch of shelf space I'll be getting back now.

    Sunday, January 10, 2010

    Tomato and Goat Cheese Tarts

    First truly stand-out recipe of the new year, these were amazingly good, and not much trouble at all to make. I am going to have to keep an eye out for excuses to have them again. Although everyone I asked for advice suggested salad, I served them with mugs of Roasted Butternut Squash Soup -- it's January, I wanted a fairly substantial mid-day meal, and just could not face the thought of serving something cold.

    1 package puff pastry, defrosted
    Olive oil
    4 c thinly sliced yellow onions
    3 large cloves garlic, cut into thin slivers
    salt and pepper
    3 Tbsp dry white wine
    2 tsp minced fresh thyme
    4 Tbsp grated Parmesan
    4 oz garlic-and-herb goat cheese
    1 large tomato, cut into 1/4-inch slices
    3 Tbsp julienned basil leaves
    2 oz Parmesan, shaved with a vegetable peeler
    1. Unfold a sheet of puff pastry on a lightly floured surface and roll out to an 11x11 inch square. Using a six-inch saucer or other object as a guide, cut 2 circles from the sheet of pastry, discarding the excess. Repeat with the second pastry sheet to make 4 circles. Place the circles on 2 sheet pans lined with parchment paper and refrigerate until read to use. (NOTE: This sort of instruction cracks me up. How big of a refrigerator do you think I have?!)
    2. Preheat the oven to 425F.
    3. Heat 3 Tbsp olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onions and garlic. Saute 15-20 minutes, stirring frequently, until the onions are limp and there is almost no moisture remaining in the skillet. Add 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp pepper, wine, and thyme, and continue to cook for another 10 minutes, until the onions are lightly browned. Remove from heat.
    4. Using a sharp paring knife, score a 1/4 inch border around each pastry circle. Prick the pastry inside the score lines with a fork and sprinkle with a Tbsp of grated Parmesan, staying inside the scored border.
    5. Place 1/4 of the onion mixture on each circle. Crumble 1 oz of the goat cheese atop the onions. Place a slice of tomato in the center of each tart. Brush the tomato lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with basil, salt, and pepper. Scatter 4 or 5 shards of Parmesan on each tart.
    6. Bake 20-25 minutes, until golden brown. Serve hot or warm.
    Serves 4 deliciously. 

    I don't know why she always insists on fresh herbs. Dried thyme works perfectly well in this. I did get fresh basil, but in Massachusetts, in winter, it's pretty sorry-looking stuff, though the smell was a wistful reminder of summer. For the tomato I used those cherry tomatoes on the vine, which are picked at something resembling ripe, and piled four or five slices on each tart. Heavens, I am starting to sound like a food snob.

    I need to get back into the picture-taking and -uploading habit.

    Roasted Butternut Squash Soup and Curry Condiments

    This was an excellent if not particularly memorable vegetable soup. She must have some sort of secret, however, because the one in her picture is a vibrant reddish color, and mine always turns out to be sort of muddy. Possibly the type of curry powder she uses is more red than mine? Some of my onions got quite black in the course of roasted, too, which may have been more caramel than intended. Possibly my different method of preparation is to blame -- since I don't have a food mill, I put the vegetables into the broth and used my immersion blender to whirl it all up.

    Regardless of its looks, the soup tasted great, and you can hardly beat it for easy preparation. I made this to serve with her Tomato and Goat Cheese Tarts on a cold, cold January day when we had lunch guests. I did not do the condiments. I hate coconut, and banana on a soup is too weird for me.

    She has taken to specifying "good" in her ingredients lists, as in "good olive oil" and "good curry powder." I'm ignoring that in my transcriptions because, well... duh. What, are you going to use bad ingredients?

    3-4 lb butternut squash, peeled and seeded
    2 yellow onions
    2 MacIntosh apples, peeled and cored
    3 Tbsp olive oil
    Salt and freshly ground black pepper
    2-4 c chicken stock
    1/2 tsp curry powder
    For serving: Scallions, white and green parts, trimmed and sliced diagonally; flaked sweetened coconut, lightly toasted; roasted salted cashews, toasted and chopped; diced banana
    1. Preheat the oven to 425F.
    2. Cut the squash, onions, and apples into 1-inch cubes. Toss them with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Divide between two sheet pans and spread into a single layer. Roast for 35-45 minutes, until very tender.
    3. Meanwhile, heat the chicken stock to a simmer. When the vegetables are done, put them through a food mill fitted with a medium blade.
    4. Place the vegetables in a large pot and add enough stock to make a thick soup. Add curry powder, salt and pepper to taste. 
    5. Serve hot with condiments.
    Serves 4-6

    Two Side Dishes from "Back to Basics"

    I must say that the first week of January has been a good one for the goals. It usually is, of course. I found plentiful opportunity to use this cookbook; it really is just a matter of planning. I quite like the Barefoot Contessa, in case you hadn't guessed. I have a couple more from her coming up, but I didn't want to put all of them into one huge post.

    Pan-Roasted Root Vegetables

    This was good, and plenty easy, but my veggies never browned the way they're supposed to. Next time I'll try leaving them at a higher temperature for a while. Of course, you can use whatever veggies you like (I've never even heard of white turnips). Serves 4

    4 Tbsp unsalted butter
    1 white turnip, unpeeled and 1-inch diced
    2 carrots, 1-inch diced
    2 small parsnips, peeled and 1-inch diced
    1/2 celery root, peeled and 1-inch diced
    8 Brussels sprouts, halved if large
    4 fresh thyme sprigs
    1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
    1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
    2 celery ribs, 1-inch diced
    1. Melt the butter in a large saute pan that has a tight-fitting lid.
    2. Add the turnip, carrots, parsnips, celery root, Brussels sprouts, thyme, salt, and pepper, and toss with the butter. Cover the pan cook over low heat for 10 minutes.
    3. Add the celery and stir. Cover the pan again and cook another 5 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Add a few Tbsp of water if dry. Serve hot.
    Parmesan-Roasted Broccoli
    I forgot to put the olive oil on. The results were somewhat crispy. Worth trying again. Normally I just steam the stuff, so this was a big change for us. Serves 6

    4-5 pounds broccoli
    4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
    7 Tbsp olive oil, divided
    1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
    1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
    2 tsp grated lemon zest
    2 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
    3 Tbsp pine nuts, toasted
    1/3 c grated Parmesan
    2 Tbsp julienned fresh basil
    1. Preheat the oven to 425F.
    2. Cut the broccoli florets from the stalks, leaving an inch or two of stalk. Cut the larger florets in half. You should have about 8 cups total.
    3. Place the florets on a sheet pan large enough to hold them in a single layer. Toss with the garlic and drizzle with 5 Tbsp olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. 
    4. Roast 20-25 minutes until crisp-tender and slightly browned. 
    5. Remove from the over and immediately toss with 1 1/2 Tbsp olive oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, pine nuts, Parmesan, and basil. Serve hot.
    If I select one cookbook a week to work from, I will not get halfway through the collection by the end of the year.

    Wednesday, January 6, 2010

    Italian Wedding Soup

    First new recipe of the new year! One week in and I have kept at least one goal, that of making at least one new recipe a week, and using a cookbook for it. This week's cookbook is Barefoot Contessa: Back to Basics. I selected this soup with some hope that the children would like it, as they have been known to go for some similar efforts on occasion, but no dice this time. It's an excellent soup, though, one I would not hesitate to make again. The leftovers were fantastic. I wasn't sure what shape of pasta to use, but I quite unexpectedly found some organic whole wheat acini de pepe at our supermarket and they worked very well. I don't usually like whole wheat pasta, I find the flavor sometimes over-assertive, but for this use and in such a small size, it didn't bother me at all. I thought the dill would be weird, but it actually added a great, fresh flavor (I did have to use dried).

    3/4 lb ground chicken
    1/2 lb chicken sausage, casing removed
    2/3 c white bread crumbs
    2 tsp minced garlic
    3 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
    1/4 c grated Pecorino Romano cheese
    1/4 c grated Parmesan cheese
    3 Tbsp milk
    1 extra-large egg, lightly beaten
    Salt and pepper to taste

    2 Tbsp olive oil
    1 c minced yellow onion
    1 c 1/4-inch diced carrots
    3/4 c 1/4-inch diced celery
    10 c chicken stock
    1/2 c dry white wine
    1 c small pasta such as tubettini or pastini
    1/4 c minced fresh dill
    12 oz baby spinach, washed and trimmed
    1. Preheat the oven to 350F.
    2. Place all of the meatball ingredients in a bowl and combine gently. Form into 1 to 1 1/4-inch ball on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. (NOTE: Do not skip the parchment. These critters stuck even to my nonstick pan where it wasn't covered.) Should have about 40 meatballs.
    3. Bake 30 minutes, until cooked through and lightly browned. Set aside.
    4. Heat the olive oil over medium-low heat in a large, heavy soup pot. Add the onion, carrots, and celery, and saute until softened, 5-6 minutes. 
    5. Add the stock and wine and bring to a boil. 
    6. Add the pasta to the simmering broth and cook until tender. 
    7. Add the dill and then the meatballs to the soup and simmer for 1 minute.
    8. Taste for salt and pepper. Stir in the spinach and cook just until wilted.
    Serve with additional Parmesan if you like.

    Much as I liked this, I did have a few tiny quibbles with the recipe. I am glad that Ina has discovered the effortless joy of baked meatballs, but while the mixture of ground chicken and chicken sausage tasted fine, the mix of ground chicken and sausage resulted in a somewhat visually off-putting two-tone effect. The amounts indicated left me with some hard-to-use remnants. Even though I used "hot" sausage, I thought the meatballs could have been spicier--I might add some red pepper flakes or something next time to take them up a bit. The baby spinach, while readily available and easy to use, did not seem to have a sturdy enough flavor for this soup. I might try kale next time.

    Overall, though, this is a good soup to have in your repertoire at this time of year. 

    Writing Progress Report

    Having done almost nothing tangible on any novel during my 10 days off for the holidays, I have finally started work on Book 3 in something resembling earnest. I say nothing tangible because I did in that time consider, fall in love with, and then discard several ideas for how to handle the midbook. I think I have a version of the story I can live with for a first draft now.

    As of this post, I have hit 25,000 words. If I average a thousand words a day, I'll have a draft by the end of March. I have started putting my wordcount in my desk calendar as a means to encourage myself toward this goal.

    I have also printed out all of the crits received so far on Book 1, so that I may attempt to fix all of the problems with the opening, while worrying ceaselessly that I have a screwed-up, useless story. Meanwhile, Real Job is presenting me with what I like to call "challenges." Think positive, and all that.

    There are days when I feel overwhelmed by all of this, but on the whole, I love my life. :)

    Friday, January 1, 2010

    Dinner and a Movie

    We stayed in on the Eve again. I made a pizza, we watched a movie, the kids went to bed at their usual time, and so did I. I think I am in the running for Most Boring Person ever, but since the cats got me up at 5:30 and we have to drive to Connecticut today, I'm pretty sure it was a good move to get some sleep.

    We watched Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. I had never seen it before, somehow. As teenage wish-fulfillment goes, I don't think it gets any more harmless, and it had its cute moments.

    Here's to the new year! Time to stare at a book draft for a while and pretend I'm working on it.....