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"

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Winter Solstice, 2011

Feeling rather pensive today, standing at the brink of the new year. There are so many things I want to do, sometimes it feels overwhelming.

Not for long, usually -- I am by nature or training a planner, and when things look insane, my instinct is to break them down, to chunk them out, to find a path toward the goal. At least, I do that sometimes, with things I really care about. Other things, well... they can fall by the wayside. I am wondering if I should take a page from The Happiness Project and try a different thing every month? Something to consider during the holiday week

Generally speaking, I'm a pretty happy person, but one thing I've never been happy with (for long) is my productivity. I am often busy, but am I busy in good and useful ways? How will I look back on this time in ten years, or twenty?

I have some firm goals in mind for 2012. I will revise Fury's Flight; I will apply to writing workshops; I will take up the next book (and find a title for the dratted thing). My Christmas present from D* this year is a precious one: time to myself. I'm going to use it to take a French class in the spring. I've renewed the gym membership that lapsed while I was pregnant with Mimi.

Beyond that? Things get vague. Things get, "I'd really like... someday." I'd like to learn to can, and to quilt. Yesterday a friend gave me a book on cheesemaking, even more packed with heady possibilities than most cookbooks. I'd like to plan a monthly day trip somewhere with the kids. I'd like to actually do a 365 project. I'd like to single-handedly revive the art of letter writing, decorate my apartment, learn to dress like an adult, throw dinner parties.

Beyond vagueness, the list devolves into questions. Do I want to listen to NPR, or do I just feel guilty about not being a better informed person, and would doing something about it make me happy? Should I put more time into blogging? Am I doing enough to develop my writer's voice?

Add to list: study the art of the possible.

I have an open notebook, and a spiffy new desk calendar. Time to plan.

Friday, December 9, 2011

2011 Goals Revisited

As we dive headlong toward the holidays, it seems amazing that the year is already almost over! Time to sit back with a plate of cookies and see how we did.

Do Things
After 2010's "lost summer" and an autumn consumed by a wonderful new small person, this was a major goal, and I'm thrilled to say that it was met and then some. While we didn't get around to everything on my list, we did quite a few things:
  • Vermont Cheese Festival
  • Visited friends in CT and ME
  • Visited family in RI, PA, and VT
  • Sandwich Fair
  • Gardner Museum
  • Walden Pond
  • Chinatown
  • Museum of Fine Arts
  • Museum of Science membership got used a lot (we re-upped for next year)
  • Nutcracker
So many wonderful memories. I hope we can keep it up next year!

I had two financial goals this year:
  • Start saving for the kids' college education. I set up automated deposits for all three of them, and they have been ticking away faithfully. No problem there. 
  • Improve the savings account. This one was an abject failure. I'd like to blame a series of emergencies (the cat, the car) and traveling, but at base I think it comes down to lack of discipline, and I'm going to make that a top priority for '12. 
I wanted to try one new recipe a week, and I wanted to blog about them. As I generally do, I started the year out strong and then lost my way. I seem to have reached a zone where I'm not as concerned with trying new recipes all the time; it's nice, but it's not a priority. As for the blog, who knows what I'll end up doing with it, if anything at all. So this area wasn't a big success, but it's also not something I really fret about. We eat well pretty much all the time, and I can be happy about that without stressing myself over it.

I had two goals for this area, too, and double success! I send out a couple dozen queries for The Inquisitor's Wizard--which netted me absolutely nothing, but I did it, and I have the rejection emails to prove it. I put my shoulder to the wheel and finished a proper draft of Fury's Flight, and then I rejoined critters.com and got myself a half dozen beta readers, who are giving me some very useful feedback.

Observe Birthdays
Umm... I started out well?

So there we have it. Obviously, I can't say that I met all of these goals, but it was a really, really good year. I have a wonderful family and friends, and many things for which to be thankful as we wrap up 2011.

Happy New Year (almost). May 2012 be everything you wish.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

I was looking through my old posts as I planned the meal for 2011. Last year I was too busy to even write down what I made? Never again! Not that this year was much of a stretch. We have the routine pretty well down, and I didn't even do any cooking ahead (I had planned to, but a gas leak at our place on Sunday put the kibosh on any notion of making rolls or cranberry sauce in advance.)


Bread Basket:

The turkey was slathering under the skin with an entire stick of butter mixed with dried herbs, and cooked in a startlingly short period of time. The gravy was from this recipe and may actually have been my favorite part of the meal.

The following day, having learned from painful experience that if I wait it doesn't happen, I hacked the carcass into pieces, piled them into my stock pot, added carrot, celery, onion, and a few peppercorns, and set it to do its quiet magic while the rest of us went about our day. Only a week later, nearly all of the leftovers have been used.

It was a good day. Until the mouse ran across my stove....

Sweet and Spicy Nuts

1 C sugar
2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 large egg white
6 C unsalted nuts - walnuts, pecans, natural almonds, cashews

Preheat to 325. Grease 2 jelly roll pans,

In small bowl, stir first 5 ingredients together. In large bowl, with wire whisk, beat egg white until foamy. Stir nuts into egg white. Add sugar mixture; toss until nuts are thoroughly coated.

Divide nuts between jelly roll pans, spreading evenly. Bake 25-27 minutes or until golden brown and dry, stirring twice. (Check on them, you may need to rotate pans, one of mine gets done quicker than the other). Transfer nuts to wax paper to cool.

Store tightly covered at room temperature up to one month.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

... And Done!

50,000 words, 29 days. A three-time winner is me:

It's a horrible draft even by NaNo standards, but it'll sit there in the queue until I have time to give it some proper thought. As long as I keep doing this every November, I will never be without a book to work on--assuming that I don't give up this entire hobby at some point as a ridiculous waste of time, as sometimes sounds like a good idea.

I have lots of food posts to do, and maybe now I will have time to write them.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

30,000 Words Under the Sea

Or something like that. NaNoWriMo is... well, not exactly cruising along this year. It's been something of a struggle, though I've never been more than a day's wordcount behind. The story is pretty workmanlike at this point; I've got ideas for things I can do with it when the day comes to draft it properly--which I think I will do, though it's going to have to wait for Fury's Flight and then Go before it gets furnished. I could probably have just as well spent the time doing a proper outline and some research. On the other hand, I am coming up with some things along the way that I might not have if I were doing this more systematically. I guess I am halfway between pantsing and plotting.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Terrible Threes?

I read on another blog comment earlier this week that three years is the average lifespan of a blog. Maybe if I can keep this one going for another few months things will perk up.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Empire Divided Must Unite

Having made a brief experiment with separating out my interests into dedicated blogs, I'm moving those posts over to this one.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Weeks of Eating Cheap

I am incredibly lucky in that for the most part, we don't have to worry about the grocery budget. Every once in a while, though, we have an unusual bill (usually car-related these days) that makes me frown at the amount I've been spending, and vow to cut back a little bit. Then we have a week in which we try to eat from the pantry (which tends to be kind of overstocked, because I never buy one can of something when I can buy three). Here, in no particular order, are my favorite "cheap week" meals:
  • Pizza. We have homemade dough, mozzarella, and pepperoni already, so kind of a no-brainer. Our oldest recently commented that we've stopped having pizza-and-a-movie nights; perhaps it's time to resume that tradition.
  • Tacos. One of my guilty pleasures is Old El Paso or Ortega tacos. From an actual box. With iceberg lettuce on top. Using ground beef from the farmer's market makes it all right, doesn't it? 
  • Fritatta. This counts as actual food. A half dozen eggs and a few vegetable odds and ends and you have a meal, albeit a rather slim one for hearty appetites. I will probably try to bake some bread or make a simple soup to go with it. Speaking of which...
  • Soups. Grab a butternut squash (cheap and abundant at this time of year), or a few potatoes, or a few cans of black beans for that matter.
  • Chickpea curries. One can of chickpeas, one can of diced tomatoes, seasonings, perhaps some fresh spinach (the only thing you'd need to buy), serve over the starch of your choice.
With no fuss and very little thinking, and one or two "leftovers" nights, there's a week of dinners. Not particularly inspired dinners, perhaps, but tasty and reasonably healthy. My shopping list has a mere 20 items on it, half of which we can probably get at the farmer's market.

Even better would be if I can get myself organized enough to make muffins or something over the weekend.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Oh, Beta Readers....

I have ten of them signed up to read.


My takeaway? That the story sounds different enough to be interesting, and that the first scene promises writing quality that will at least not be torture to endure for 92,000 words.

I have also gotten one very honest negative review of that scene. I can live with that. The book has been through two drafts, but this is just the start of its journey.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Third Draft: Done

It ended up being somewhat shorter than I had hoped, once I deleted all of the crap scenes I had moved to the end to figure out later. It is however complete, a coherent story from start to finish with no missing scenes or transitions or bits marked "figure this out later." Now to wait and see if anyone on critters.org wants to beta, and to start researching the next novel.


Friday, October 7, 2011

Blueberry Crumb Cake

Just a day after I said I don't cook much right now, what did I end up doing but cooking dinner for a visiting friend. The dinner was Beef Carbonnade. The recipe from my venerable binder of clippings during my years as a Cooking Light subscriber. It delivered (and yes, the weather was hot and sticky here, but we cranked up the air conditioning and pretended that it was properly seasonal). While making the stew, it occurred to me with a frisson of horror that we had nothing at all to serve for dessert.

Acquaintances who hear about my baking frequently want to know why I'm not the size of a house, and the answer is that I don't often actually eat the stuff. I am someone who wants her sweets in the afternoon, the long desert between my early lunch and 6 p.m. dinnertime. After dinner I am busy making sure homework happened and organizing bedtime snacks, and other than the odd miniature chocolate bar I hardly ever eat dessert then. The exception happens when we have company. Somewhere in my mind it is written You shall serve dessert to your guests or give up all claim to being civilized.

The oven, of course, was going to be busy for the two+ hours it took the carbonnade to reduce itself to a molten deliciousness. So I went looking for something that a) I had everything I needed for, b) did not require chilling time or anything else complicated, and c) could be served warmish, since it would have to bake while we ate. That ruled out most cakes and brownies. I didn't have time to fuss around with batches of cookies. I did have a lot of summer fruit in the freezer....

Dorie Greenspan saved my bacon with her crumb cake. No exotic ingredients? Check. Simple to make? Check. Serve warm or room temperature? Check.

Scrumptious? Check!

5 Tbsp unsalted butter at room temperature
1/4 c granulated sugar
1/3 c (packed) light brown sugar
1/3 c all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 c chopped walnuts

1 pint (2 c) blueberries, fresh or frozen (no need to thaw)
2 c plus 2 tsp all-purpose flour, divided
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
2/3 c granulated sugar
grated zest of 1/2 lemon or 1/4 orange
6 Tbsp unsalted butter at room temperature
2 large eggs at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 c buttermilk

  1. Preheat oven to 350F. Butter an 8-inch square pan and put it on a baking sheet. 
  2. Make the crumbs. Put all of the ingredients except the walnuts in a food processor. Pulse until it clumps and holds together when pressed. Transfer crumbs to a bowl. Mix in the walnuts. Press plastic wrap directly onto the surface and refrigerate until needed (up to 3 days). 
  3. Toss the blueberries and 2 tsp flour together to coat the berries. Set aside. 
  4. Whisk together the remaining 2 c flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
  5. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or another large bowl if using a hand mixer) rub the sugar and zest together with your fingers until the sugar is moist and aromatic. Add the butter and mix at medium speed until light, about 3 minutes. 
  6. Add the eggs 1 at a time, beating for about 1 minute after each. Beat in the vanilla. Dorie says don't worry if it looks curdled. 
  7. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients (in 3 additions) alternately with the buttermilk (in 2 additions).
  8. Gently stir in the berries.
  9. Scrape the batter into the pan and smooth it. Get out the crumb mixture. Break it up with your fingers and scatter over the top.
  10. Bake for 55-65 minutes. Transfer to a rack and cool until just warm or room temperature.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Things I Did with My iPhone in 24 Hours

  • Read Facebook
  • Make a phone call
  • Read Twitter
  • Read email
  • Read a novel (hi D*)
Thank you for everything, Mr. Jobs.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Gilden Latten Bones

Gilded Latten Bones is the... I don't know, feels like the 50th book in the Garrett, PI series, but Wikipedia tells me there's only 13. From the feel of the ending, I suspect this is intended to be the last one.

The story starts out in traditional noir mystery fashion, and seems fairly promising. There is a bizarre attack on the place he's now sharing with Tinnie, and it looks like an older, wiser Garrett will be hauled back to his old haunts when someone comes close to killing his old friend Morley.

Much as I appreciate learning a new vocabulary word, the series has lost its luster for me. While Cook has done a great job evolving his setting over the course of the series, he hasn't done so much for his protagonist, and his attempts to do so in the course of this story strike me as clumsy. Garrett is still Garrett. The "settled down now" veneer is translucently thin, the problems his now-permanent relationship with Tinnie create seem as tired as Garrett himself, their resolution verges on unnatural (for one thing, it requires the Dead Man to like a woman).

The story is encumbered by the weight of all of the characters it has created over the years, all of which now seem like they have to show up in every book, along with a few new ones. The choppy style seems less like an effect and more like laziness. Two-page chapters? Am I reading a Dan Brown novel? I had to force myself to keep going beyond the first few chapters.

The worst thing? This should have been a great Garrett story. The final adventure, dark deeds at the highest levels of the realm, hideous sorceries lurking in Tun Faire's shadows, a man caught between two women, the case that will require everything he's learned from all of his previous adventures... and instead it falls flat. The pieces never gel, there is never any serious sense of threat. Garrett spends as much time mooning (awkwardly) over his relationships and sorting out minor problems among his friends as he does anything else, gets beat up, sleeps a lot, gets a cold (!), with the result that the actual plot feels like an afterthought. Surrounded by an army of secondary characters, slowed by pointless subplots, the top-heavy story creaks along to a finale in which Garrett has no part to play.

I really, really want to know what his editor thought about this one.

This review also posted to Goodreads.

Friday, September 9, 2011

State of the Novel

Revisions creep forward.


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

As Always, Julia

Every summer, we visit the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. Most summers, we manage a visit to Meredith, and the Innisfree Bookshop, and do our part toward keeping this fine little business in operation. Now that we have the three kids, we are spending more time and money in the toy section than we used to, but I try to keep my purchases weighted toward the written word. This year's find for me was a delightful volume of letters exchanged between Julia Child and a woman who became her good friend, Avis DeVoto.

I don't generally go in for biography or for recent history, but I found this book absorbing and delightful. The writers' personalities come across brilliantly. It's a fascinating story, not only of how a well-loved cookbook came to be but of the times that saw it come into being. The 50s were not so long ago, but sometimes we think that we know them better than we do. The politics sound awfully familiar (at least we don't have McCarthy to deal with right now!), but in a pre-second wave feminism, pre-food revolution world, the minutia of daily life are strikingly alien.

It's a quick read, and a fun one for anyone interested in Ms Child and her culinary offspring.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Magic Treehouse #1: Dinosaurs Before Dark

We have a 7-year-old who is just reaching the point of being able to read chapter books on her own. The Magic Tree House was on a list of recommended summer reading from the school, and came recommended from a friend, so I picked up Dinosaurs Before Dark to see if she would like it. We're up to the third book now, though not without a few battles. She read the first one entirely by herself; since them we've moved to a trading model.

The books are short. Each one has ten chapters, and in each the two main characters (Jack and Annie) visit the Magic Tree House and pick up a book. By making a wish, they are sent to another place and time, where they have a mildly frightening adventure, and then return home. A meta-plot makes itself known in the first book, and continues to build very slowly: Who is the owner of the tree house? Why are the books there? This is useful for holding adult attention if nothing else!

I think these are pretty good books for a young reader with a good basic vocabulary. The writing itself is workmanlike, and I am baffled by Osborne's heavy use of sentence fragments, but the settings are interesting. Osborne isn't afraid to throw challenging words in, but there are no more than a handful of those per volume (precipice stood out in #2, sarcophagus in #3). The individual chapters are very short, so it's easy to get through one a night, or two or three for that matter. Reading them doesn't feel like a chore, and there's a great sense of accomplishment for a new reader in being able to read a whole book. The perils of the characters are quite mild, so I would particularly recommend these for kids with an anxious nature.

Monday, August 15, 2011

State of the Novel

I ought to use this space for accountability in writing as well as reading, now that I am finding my way back into the world of being productive. My WIP is a genre-blender with the working title Fury's Flight.


In addition, I have begun noodling about with ideas for this year's NaNoWriMo project (my third). Just a few notes and ideas, and an Amazon order placed for a book (used) that might be helpful in researching the setting. I have never had to do much research for a book before, so this will be interesting.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Happiness Project

In the list of phrases I would use to describe myself and my reading, "self-help books" is pretty much dead last. I've read more Stephen King books (four) than I have read self-help books in my life. A couple of weeks ago, we were in Seven Stars as part of a bookstore-hopping expedition, and The Happiness Project was out on one of the front tables. I picked it up and read a few pages about how cleaning out her closets improved her life. Since I had found the same orderly home = productive mind effect in my own life, I checked out the author's blog. I spent most of the weekend reading her archives, then got the book for Kindle so I could read it on my phone. (Oddly enough, I feel okay buying "practical" books in e-formats, but strongly prefer pleasure books to be physical objects. Perhaps that isn't odd.)

One thing that I think makes this one stand out a bit from most self-help books is that the author (Gretchen Rubin) has actual chops as a researcher (law school is good for something!). The book is well-organized and well-written. Though she knows her audience well enough not to include footnotes, there is an extensive list of pointers for further reading in the back. If you keep up with the news at all, you're likely to find yourself nodding at times and thinking, I remember hearing about that study.

Not only the book, but the project itself is well-organized. Taking one major topic a month, a handful of tangible goals and practical methods to attain them, and a number of inspirational writings, is a good way to go about such a big effort. Rubin addresses ways to keep track of success, and isn't afraid to abandon strategies that aren't working for her. She's adamant that what works for one person may not work for another--in fact, one of the central theses of the book is that what makes one person happy doesn't have to make anyone else happy, and that knowing (and accepting) what makes you happy is a key to achieving it.

I loved this book. I'll almost certainly read it again. Amusingly enough, the experience of reading it alone made me happy. I liked her stories, her commentary, her successes and failures, and most of all I liked her systematic, practical approach, which fits well into my own strategies for life. I don't feel any inclination for a year-long personal overhaul, but I did feel inspired to at least think about what areas of my own life could use work. I joined a few list-making and goal-setting sites, like Day Zero and Listography--not to pressure myself to use them if I ended up not liking them, but just to see what I would come up with. 2011 has been a banner year for getting out of our ruts to see the people we love, and I want to make sure that 2012 keeps it up--without turning into a harried treadmill of obligation that leaves us too tired for our regular lives.

The Happiness Project is not only a blog and a book these days, but includes an online toolkit for anyone looking to make their own resolutions. It's worth looking at if you feel the self-improvement bug, but aren't sure how to go about it.

Virtual Light

Why yes, I am reading these out of order. I'm going to try something I did in a couple of posts on the old blog, and examine the opening. So many people in the business emphasize the important of the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first chapter.

I can't find a ton to pick apart in this one. This is the sort of description Gibson absolutely excels at, full of tiny, lyrical touches and fearless language. It gives an impressionist glimpse of the world of the book (in SF, it could be argued that the world functions as a main character), perfectly juxtaposing beauty and decay. It draws you in without apparent effort to see what will become of this man, this place. Unfortunately for the reader, the courier described turns out to be not a character at all, but a plot device.

I used the word fractal in conversation the other day. The book is a bit dated that way. I haven't read Virtual Light before, and I bogged down about three quarters of the way through. In the process, I noticed a couple of patterns that showed up in this one and in Idoru.

Gibson relies strongly on impossibly naive observers. Every main character in both of these books has a fish-out-of-water thing going on. It lets him pile on the descriptions, to be a tourist in his own near-future world, but makes it difficult for the characters to be effective actors and occasionally comes across as ridiculous--Rydell's ignorance on many occasions is simply impossible to buy. They don't seem to have any realistic connections to other people, normal friendships or families. They stand to one side and watch, anchorless, puzzled by everything that is going on around them, which is to say, the plot. The bad guys have a lot more on the ball, though they also tend to be featureless and direly uninteresting.

A general historical amnesia seems to be in play. This book is set in 2005, but everyday things from their own recent past are cast as strange almost beyond belief. It's a sort of reverse time-travel effect, where the pre-industrial character is astonished by cars and vacuum cleaners, but considerably less explicable. Factory-produced cigarettes? Cars that ran on gasoline? RVs? How bizarre! It's heavy-handed to say the least, like none of the main characters ever watch TV. There's a lot of time spent on descriptionss, on stuff, but there is an almost total cultural vacuum (yes, despite the presence of Yamazaki, who is supposed to be studying it). Like Idoru, on the whole this reads like notes for a novel, rather than the completed thing. It gives a glance at things I want it to dig into, then gets distracted by its own surface.

I also realized while reading this just how annoying it can be to use italicized speech for emphasis. A couple of minor characters in Virtual Light speak this way. "I haven't seen your friend before." "That storm was just terrible, wasn't it?" "We're a full-service shop...." I had a critiquer once flag me for overusing emphasis in dialog, and I didn't think at the time that it was that big a deal, but I'm definitely going to be more careful about it in the future. I'm not sure it's ever defensible to give such a distracting characteristic to a character so minor that they are more properly a piece of set-dressing than a person.
    The plot is not innovative; it's a straightforward technological McGuffin pursuit, which unfortunately is almost the exact same pattern the next book follows, though Virtual Light has far better action scenes. The stakes seem to be high, but he frequently blows the tension, and the ending is so pat, so literally deus ex machina that I found myself wondering if I was misremembering how much I liked the Neuromancer trilogy.

    I'm going to give the third one in this series a miss and move on to something different.

    Monday, August 8, 2011

    Getting Organized (In Theory)

    I had a very odd Sunday: I didn't do anything. D* and the older kids went to church in the morning. It was raining hard. I turned off the air conditioning and opened a lot of windows, listened to the rain and the baby, and read a lot of the Happiness Project archives. In the afternoon I played LEGO with the kids, took videos of L with my phone, and did more reading. The TV didn't go on until after dinner, the air conditioning likewise (if it's too hot the boy can't sleep). I had a bunch of stuff I'd wanted to get to, but nothing really urgent. We'd had lunch guests on Saturday, so the place was reasonably clean already. I don't relax very often; sometimes I wonder if I'm forgetting how.

    I enjoyed my reading, not least because I was delighted to find some of my own hard-discovered principles among hers. At least for me, a tidy environment is one sizable component of happiness. Clutter and mess stress me out, and so I am coming to understand that Do it now is an important rule if I don't want to be that way. The important corollary is Do it myself--it's better than either steaming or nagging. It only takes a minute or two to wipe off the stove, to throw away (or recycle) that empty container, to put a book back on the shelf. It makes tackling the major chores easier if the first step doesn't always have to be "declutter the room."

    I also like her "spend it out" rule, though I don't think it's a major problem for me--not least because we moved last year, so we've already and recently gone through all of our things and gotten rid of clothes never worn, books never read, and broken objects. Now that we've been here a whole year, I find that I retain this winnowing eye. We have more stuff than can comfortably fit into the space, so I've been shoving some of it into the attic--thinning the book collection, recognizing that the photo albums just won't get updated for a while, since there's nowhere to put them, passing outgrown baby things along promptly--and investing in some storage devices for the rest of it, especially the 10,000 toys we seem to have accumulated.

    Here's a list of interesting-looking links I gathered from her:
    I asked my mom for a toolbox for Christmas, tired of rummaging through our cardboard box of oddities, hoping I won't stab myself on a rusty screwdriver (which if it isn't a drink, ought to be).

    I just realized as I put together the link list--I'm better! I am back to being the me who is energized by having a lot to do, who plans for the future, who wants to accomplish. Whew. One of the things I'm going to put on a list (somewhere) is to buy a sunlamp, so the next dreary spring doesn't knock me for a loop. 

    Sunday, August 7, 2011

    30 Foods Meme - Day 2 - Warm Salad of Thyme-Crusted Tuna

    These posts are turning out to be rather widely spaced! We have been very busy this summer, and Ms Greenspan is not doing a prompt every day. For the second day, this was it:
    What is one food that you absolutely, completely, totally, and utterly cannot stand?  Answer in haiku, please!
    My response:
    Delicate pink curls
    With too many little legs -
    Shrimp make me shudder.
    Don't like how they look, don't like their texture, don't care for their taste even in highly processed form.

    I do like fish, though, and our farmer's market now has a fishmonger! The prices are high, but it's good fish, and the $$ encourage us to practice portion control with our proteins. On one recent visit I got a piece of tuna for no particular reason. A couple weeks later, we set out to "eat down" the freezer in preparation for a week on vacation, and I had to figure out what to do with it. The internet to the rescue again. A moment of searching, a few minutes of paging through the results, and I had a candidate not only for the tuna but for the bag of arugula I had impulse-purchased that morning: Warm Salad of Thyme-Crusted Tuna.

    I also had some corn. Corn season is a brief and glorious thing in New England. Who needs madeleines? The sight of corn in its husk, piled anyhow on counters or spilling from bags and bushels, conjures a lazy afternoon heat, cicada song, my grandparents' patio, the rattle of a pot lid as the water begins to boil, greasy fingers and the sweet crunch of that first bite. My favorite farm (okay, one of my favorites...) puts a sign on theirs:

    That's the way to get it. I'm not a particularly devoted locavore, but corn on the cob is one thing I will not bother with from the grocery store.

    But, back to the tuna. In practice, this was so easy it falls under the "do I even call it a recipe?" category. Arugula plus slivered basil plus good tomato plus balsamic vinaigrette. Tuna plus generous salt and pepper plus thyme. Cook the latter in a very hot pan until it's as done as you like it (ours not being the freshest, I cooked it through).

    Put the latter in proximity to the former, and eat it. Much better than shrimp.

    Tuesday, July 26, 2011

    New England Tour 2011: Vermont Cheesemakers Festival

    I wish I could remember where I first came across mention of the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival. I do remember thinking "wow, that looks really neat." Last summer it just was not an option -- we were moving, buying a car, having a baby -- but I put it down on my list of things to try to do this year.

    And we did! We went! And it was great. Even better, we got to spend the weekend with D*'s awesome sister and her husband, who moved to Burlington last year. I have driven past the city any number of times, but never spent any time there before. It looks like a really great place, and the scenery is jaw-droppingly beautiful.

    We drove up on Saturday--the last day of the recent heat wave, and when we got in the temperatures were in the 90s. We unloaded our things and hit the nearest beach. I had no idea there were beaches there, so we weren't prepared, but who needs bathing suits? 

    Then back home for dinner and a late bedtime for some very tired children.

    Some time in the night a thunderstorm passed through and the temperature finally dropped, leaving Sunday clear and crisp and all around the most beautiful weather possible. After the baby's morning nap, we headed over to Shelburne Farms.

    The place. Is. Huge. It goes on and on and on. Beautiful lake views!

    Ridiculously large buildings!


    Solar panels!

    And, of course, the festival!

    I didn't even try to take any pictures of the interior, which was a complete zoo -- a very tasty zoo, a zoo packed with people enjoying themselves to the hilt, but a zoo nevertheless. The two older children were well and truly freaked out by the crowd, and ended up staying outside with their aunt and uncle while D* and I braved the stalls (Mimi in her baby carrier grabbed shirts and loose hair). It was somewhat overwhelming even for us, and after a while we snagged some edibles and joined everyone else for lunch on the grass.

    Sans utensils as we were, it was a most primitive repast: hunks ripped off a baguette (from O Bread) with chunks of a soft white cheese (which I think was the Jack from Neighborly, but I might be getting them mixed up). On a beautiful summer day, there is absolutely nothing better than pure, simple foods!

    After fortifying ourselves, we dove back into the fray, this time for proper shopping. On reflection, I think was a good approach: an initial tasting swing, and then a second to focus on picking up the ones I liked the best. If you ever get a chance to go to this event, be prepared to spend money! And bring a cooler, which I managed to forget even after I put it on my list of things to pack. After some agonizing, I ended up with four kinds of cheese (mostly cheddars, which I hoped would travel well), some shortbread cookies, chocolate, apple butter, and a second baguette. I didn't really taste any of the wines, but D* sampled a few and proclaimed them all to be on the sweet side.

    After that, we took a ride on a tractor-drawn wagon up to the Farm Barn so the kids could see the animals, of which they have many -- sheep, goats, pigs, donkeys, chickens.

    We had another snack. (I was worried that they wouldn't have any milk available for JJ but hello... dairy farm? Duh!) L helped to milk a goat, and took part in the chicken roundup, when they put the birds into the barn for the evening. It may have been the cutest thing I have ever seen, a dozen children very seriously surrounding chickens and clapping their hands to herd them.

    She also found an egg! We took a gander at the cheesemaking operation, which is pretty straightforward really, and relaxed in the grass before catching the last cart ride back to the festival and our cars.

    In the morning it was time to head back to Boston with our swag. I would not at all mind making this into a tradition!

    Tuesday, July 12, 2011

    30 Foods Meme - Day 1

    I have never done one of these meme things, but this one sounds like fun, and the first one elicits a very easy response. I will take a shot at playing along.
    What is the best recipe that a parent taught you to make?
    There are different ways one could take that. My mother is not one of nature's cooks (my father is not in this picture at all). She kept us fed on a tight budget, and my childhood palate was perfectly all right with macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, and things based on Cream of X soup. Vegetables were frozen, garlic was powdered, and going out to eat meant Perkins. Her own parents ate much the same way. It's the way a lot of Americans eat. It wasn't until I reached adulthood that I started to realize what a world of food there was (perhaps ironically, due to a cookbook she got me when D* and I first moved in together); I reached college without ever having eaten Chinese food, without having had real butter, and I still remember picking up a bunch of fresh asparagus for the first time.

    So when it comes to recipes that a parent taught me to make, well, there's a pretty slim selection. If anything, it's actually gone in the other direction; my mom has recently started learning to cook because she's become vegetarian, and occasionally wants to cook for others, which means something other than frozen cheese pizzas. Some of these dishes have reached my grandparents' table, which has acquired more dietary restrictions as they age.

    I have acquired a couple of recipes from my in-laws, but nothing that really fits the bill here. Which leaves me with only one thing, something we made straight through my childhood, in all of the apartments and houses we lived in, through good times and (lots of) bad. I made it for my college roommates. I still make it in exactly the same way.

    The Toll House cookie. I know that small fortunes have been invested in a search for the perfect cookie, and entire books have been written on the topic. As far as I'm concerned, that money has all been wasted. There is no better chocolate chip cookie. I make them big, and underbake them slightly so they're chewy all through, and there is nothing out there that will ever take their place. I know the recipe by heart.

    2 1/4 c all-purpose flour
    1 tsp salt
    1 tsp baking soda
    1 c butter, softened*
    3/4 c sugar
    3/4 brown sugar
    2 eggs
    1 tsp vanilla
    1 package chocolate chips**

    1. Preheat the oven to 375.
    2. Mix the dry ingredients together.
    3. Cream the butter with the two sugars.
    4. Add the eggs and beat until well incorporated.
    5. Mix in the vanilla.
    6. Mix in the dry ingredients slowly, just until incorporated.
    7. Mix in the chips.
    8. Drop onto a cookie sheet in large spoonfuls. Bake anywhere from 9-12 minutes, depending on how big they are and how you like the edges done.
    9. Allow to cook on the sheet for a few minutes, then remove to a rack to finish cooling.

    * I use salted butter, but stick to something like Land O Lakes, which has relatively mild salt content. For regular table use I prefer Kate's of Maine and Kerrygold, but those are too salty for cookies.

    ** I don't hold with walnuts in chocolate chip cookies, but if you do, go right ahead.

    So there you have it, my very first meme.

    Monday, July 11, 2011

    Swiss Chard, Leek, and Gruyere Quiche (via Nutmeg Nanny)

    My recent addiction to Tastespotting is paying dividends in the form of a burgeoning bookmark file, and a whole other place to look when I am Out of Ideas. This particular recipe was the result of a huge bunch of farmer's market chard taking up almost my entire vegetable drawer, and no particular idea how to use it. Thank goodness for search boxes, which led me to this blog post and a blog I'd never seen before. The Internet just goes on forever.

    Generally speaking, I don't do quiche. I like to cook, but I am lazy, and quiche involves that whole crust thing. When I wrote down my week's menu plan, I put this down as a frittata instead. Then I thought, It's a Sunday afternoon. You have time. You've been scrambling for weeks, it's time to slow down. When are you going to have another chance to do this? So I got together the ingredients for the dough.

    At which point our three-year-old ambled over and said, "Wet," in that particularly forlorn tone he uses on these occasions. In this case, wet meant a diaper blowout of proportions that required immediate laundry and bathing. So this almost became a frittata after all, but I got it together, made the dough (with 6yo's assistance), etc., etc. Grumbling to myself the while.

    And it was absolutely worth it. I am a quiche convert. This may become a weekend "thing" now. I am going to reprint the recipe here because I made so many changes, mainly due to my not having a deep-dish tart pan, and partly due to the aforementioned laziness.

    Swiss Chard, Leek, and Gruyere Quiche

    2 1/2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
    1/2 recipe Flaky Tart Dough (it's Martha, you can't go wrong; cutting the recipe in half worked fine)
    5 large eggs
    1 cup whole milk
    1 teaspoons salt
    1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
    1 tsp dried thyme
    2 heaping cups torn Swiss chard leaves
    1/2 cup Gruyere cheese
    1 leek, sliced thinly

    1. Make and chill the tart dough. After chilling, on a lightly floured work surface, roll dough into a 16-inch round. With a dry pastry brush, sweep off any excess flour; fit dough into a tart pan with a removable bottom, gently pressing it into the sides. Using a sharp knife, trim the dough evenly with the edge of the pan. Cover with plastic wrap; chill tart shell until firm, about 20 minutes.

    2. Preheat Oven to 375 degrees

    3. Line the tart dough with a sheet of parchment paper and fill with pie weights (or dried beans, or whatever). Transfer to oven and bake until light brown, about 25 minutes. Remove weights and parchment paper and continue baking until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack; let cool completely.

    4. Whisk 1 egg and 2 1/2 Tbsp flour until smooth. Add the remaining eggs and continue mixing until well blended.
    Add milk, salt, pepper, and thyme; mix until well combined.

    5. Sauté leeks in olive oil until soft. Add the chard and cook until just wilted. Allow to cool, then add to the egg mixture. Pour it all into your cooled tart shell. (You may want to put the tart on a baking pan in case of leaks.)

    6. Bake until filling is slightly firm and crust is a deep golden brown, 40 to 50 minutes.

    7. Transfer quiche to a wire rack to cool until set, about 20 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

    The two of us polished off almost the entire thing for dinner, with a side of soup; it would serve four for lunch or with a more substantial set of side dishes (or daintier appetites!).

    Crab Cakes with Lemon Aioli (Williams Sonoma Comfort Food)

    Crab twice in one weekend? Don't mind if I do! This recipe had been intended as our Father's Day showpiece, but then D* came down with something, so we had it a week later. It was no worse for the wait.

    New England, of course, is known for lobster, but I maintain that whoever first plucked one from the briny deep, looked into those eyestalks and said, "Hey! Dinner!" must have been really hungry. I can take or leave them in shelled form, and shell-on prefer to keep my distance. Crab, on the other hand, I would happily eat every week (if I could afford it), and if a menu has crab cakes on it, you can safely bet the house that you know what my order will be.

    Once a year or so I take a stab at making them myself; the results have been tasty, but lacking in visual appeal as they invariably fall apart. This has been my best attempt to date, and I suspect it's because they don't mess around trying to be "light." A teaspoon of oil and a nonstick pan just won't cut it in the adhesive department

    They were a trifle too wet, but next time I will know to drain my crab better. 

    Lemon Aioli
    1 c mayonnaise
    Finely grated zest of one lemon
    2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
    1 clove garlic, minced
    salt and pepper to taste

    Crab Cakes
    1 lb lump crabmeat
    3/4 c panko or other breadcrumbs, divided
    1 large egg, beaten
    1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
    2 tsp Worcestershire Sauce
    1/4 tsp hot pepper sauce
    1 Tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
    1/2 c canola oil for frying
    lemon wedges for serving

    1. To make the aioli, mix together the mayonnaise, zest, juice, and garilc. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside 1/4 cup of the aioli; cover and refrigerate the remaining 3/4 c until serving. 

    2. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment. Pick over the crab meat for shells and cartilage (there's always one tiny little piece). In a bowl, mix together 1/4 c of the panko, 1/4 c aioli, egg, mustard, Worcestershire, hot pepper sauce, and parsley. Add the crabmeat and mix gently to combine. 

    3. Divide the mixture into 8 equal portions and shape into thick cakes. Spread the remaining 3/4 c panko in a shallow dish. Coat the cakes evenly with the panko. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet. Refrigerate for 15 minutes. 

    4. In a large frying pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the cakes and cook until the undersides are golden brown, 2-3 minutes. Turn and cook another 2 minutes. Transfer to paper towels to drain briefly. 

    5. Serve the cakes at once with lemon wedges and the remaining aioli on the side.

    4 servings

    Wednesday, July 6, 2011

    New England Tour 2011 Plus! Malone, NY

    No one ever knows where Malone is. I sure didn't when I met D* . Most people think that by "upstate New York" I mean something around the state's midline, when what I actually mean is a place where, from a suitable height, you can wave hello to Canada.

    Why go to Malone? High school reunions are strangely compelling things. I haven't been to one of my own, and probably wouldn't--the people I am most curious about are the ones who have dropped off the planet since graduation, not the ones I see on Facebook. But D* is different than I am, and since his parents moved away from the town this might be the only reason we have to visit it. So we piled into the car (again) on a Friday morning and drove north.

    We stopped for lunch in White River Junction, choosing to spend our cash at the Polka Dot, a diner of ancient mien, well matching its personnel. It did have a wifi hot-spot, though! Across the street, no doubt in eternal conflict, was a much newer place full of young people with laptops called Tuckerbox.

    Unfortunately, Polka Dot was not some lost foodie haven; my grilled cheese was orange cheese on square supermarket bread, and that was about the size of the place. On the virtue side, it was cheap and almost empty, so we weren't in anyone's way with the kids and all of our stuff. L didn't like that her fries were crinkle-cut. She ended up eating a granola bar.

    We got to the ferry around three and found it waiting. This was the part the kids had been waiting for, and it does make for a very nice break in the trip, a chance to stretch legs and get some air.

    We drove through a landscape common to small towns all over the region; acres of corn, cow pastures, auto shops, tractor dealers, antique stores containing a dozen unwanted attics, the occasional dentist or other professional catering to a shrinking population.

    Some of the farms are renting out their land as windmill sites, and they make a striking and strange addition to the landscape, colossal structures breaking the gentle roll of trees and hillsides.

    We got to our hotel (Super 8. Can't recommend it.) and headed out again almost at once in search of dinner. There's a place called Mo's at the Holiday Inn Express just up the road, and we settled there rather than subject ourselves to Pizza Hut. Pizza might have been a better option, as D*'s ravioli were still partially frozen (even after he complained about it). My pasta primavera included at least half a pound of pasta and was drenched in cream sauce. L had chicken fingers and french fries, which would merit a sigh from most parents, except that we have been praying she would venture to eat this ubiquitous children's item menu for several years now, instead of refusing to eat anything at all when we travel. JJ had graham crackers.

    Then we had ice cream, went back to the hotel, watched Bolt on the TV, and went to bed. Overexcited and tired kids plus a ludicrously loud A/C unit made sleep long in arriving; the dog in the room next door and the baby made it interrupted.

    Saturday morning we were all up early if not necessarily bright. It was a packed morning. Breakfast with some other reunion people, a trip out to Burke to see another old friend, a visit to High Falls.

    Then lunch out at the Rec Park with D*'s sister and brother-in-law. There we took a much-needed time-out. The older kids played on the playground and in the water; a paddle-boat ride was taken; the baby played quietly in the grass, which seemed to take the place of nap time fairly well. No running around required for a few hours.

    Then it was time to go back to the hotel and get ready for the reunion dinner. I can't say much about the reunion itself; it wasn't mine, so I was necessarily at loose ends throughout. I found a couple of people to talk to, but that was eventually shut down by the DJ (who seemed to think that playing hair metal would strike the right note--yes, it was from the right years, but you can't dance to it). D* had a good time, and that was the point. His sister and her husband watched the kids, and they all had a trauma-free evening.

    In the morning we got back together for breakfast. D* went to church, the kids watched videos, and I kept the baby from playing with power cords in the hotel room. In the afternoon we drove out to the Almonzo Wilder Farm to pick up some postcards for a friend of mine.

    Then we went back to the Rec Park for an hour, and then over to a BBQ held by the family of some friends of D*'s. Their place is right on Lake Titus, so there was more water play and even a boat trip for L. Eventually the kids were worn out enough that we headed back to the hotel.

    The trip back on the 4th was trouble-free, aside from the a/c in the van being out. There was only one flare of temper (JJ threw a toy over the side of the ferry on our return trip, upsetting his older sister on behalf of his younger one). We stopped for lunch in Montpelior, at a little place not far from 89 that has been different every time we go through the state, but which generally provides a decent lunch (and this time, gelato! yum). Then we stopped again at a rest stop a little farther down the highway. It was a perfect afternoon, and we didn't really want to leave, but if you have to spend a day driving with the windows down, you can do worse than a summer day in Vermont. The state is ridiculously beautiful, and I89 is in excellent shape. There wasn't much traffic, just a few other homebound southern New Englanders.

    We thought briefly about trying to see the fireworks, but everyone was tired, and the kids were in no shape for another late night. Some other year for that!

    Tuesday, June 28, 2011

    Cinnamon Puffs (King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion)

    In my fantasy life, I throw quirky dinner parties and brunches where no one wants to leave, spend mornings piping perfect rosettes on tiny cakes, and make my own candy, which I hand out freely in whimsical, hand-decorated containers. (In my fantasy life I might be Molly Wizenburg, except even in my fantasies I'm not crazy enough to actually open a restaurant.)

    In real life, I might have a half hour free in the morning before meeting friends for a too-rare lunch out. A half hour that will also involve reviewing notes for a meeting and rescuing the baby when she crawls under her playpen/chair/busy board.

    So I decide to make muffins.

    And forget to set the timer. And realize that there's a typo in this recipe, but don't remember which of the two values they give I used last time I made these. I peek at them often, recall the old guideline that they're ready when you can smell them, and hope for the best.

    I am a devoted fan of quick breads, and (typo aside) I consider these muffins to be pretty near to perfect. For one thing, they taste like snickerdoodles, which is awesome. For another, they call only for ingredients I always have. That stops Fantasy Me from taking over the grocery shopping and loading up the cart with various strengths of cream, which then languish sadly, watching their expiration dates recede in the distance. (Fantasy Me uses everything she buys, and never lets a leftover go to waste. Unfortunately, Real Me has to clean the fridge.)

    If Fantasy Me ever opens a bed and breakfast, these will go on the menu. It sounds like a lot of nutmeg, but it's great. Trust me.

    Cinnamon Puffs
    3 c (12 3/4 oz) unbleached all-purpose flour
    1 c (7 oz) sugar
    2 1/2 tsp baking powder
    1 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
    3/4 tsp salt
    2 large eggs
    1 1/4 c milk
    5 1/3 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted

    1/4 c sugar
    1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
    4 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted

    Preheat oven to 350F.

    In a mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, nutmeg, and salt. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients. In another bowl, beat the eggs slightly, then add the milk and melted butter. Add the wet mixture to the well in the dry mixture. Stir just until moistened. Line or lightly grease 12 muffin cups. Fill about three-quarters full. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until muffins are golden and springy when touched.

    While the muffins are baking, mix the sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl.

    When the muffins are done, let them cool just enough to handle. Dip the tops into the melted butter, then into the cinnamon sugar mixture. Serve warm.

    Makes 12 muffins. Try not to eat them all yourself. :)

    Fantasy Me never has to clean up cat puke while typing up a recipe....

    Monday, June 27, 2011

    New England Tour 2011: Portland, Maine

    Last weekend we were in Newport, RI for D*'s cousin's wedding. This past weekend we headed north for a long-anticipated visit with old friends. They moved into their house nearly three years ago, and we still hadn't been to see it.

    Mission accomplished! The day did not start out promising--it looked pretty much the way it had for almost a solid week.

    We piled into the van and made our way out of the city. The baby was not happy about being trussed into her car seat practically as soon as she woke up, and made her annoyance known before finally falling asleep. It rained the entire way up. We arrived just around noon, which meant that after a rapid tour we piled back into the van (hooray for passenger space) and headed into Portland, a city D* and I hadn't been to in ages, and which the kids have never seen. Goal: Lunch.

    It was Lobsterfest. Despite the rain and low-60s temperatures, there was something resembling a turnout for it, which meant that we had to search for parking. The first restaurant we tried had a half hour wait, so we went around the corner to The Dry Dock. I had the crab melt, and it was delicious. L ordered chicken fingers and fries, and proceeded to eat one bite of each, alarmed by the unpeeled potatoes. J had a graham cracker. The baby ate her cereal and jarred veggies enthusiastically, in between turning around to stare at everyone else in the place.

    Since it wasn't actually raining, we poked along the pier.

    Then we decided to check out the Lobersterfest, two piers down. Unfortunately, if you weren't going to eat lobster, there wasn't much to see, but we did encounter some mild drama. A bunch of men were fishing off the end of the pier. One of them cast, and managed to get his line wrapped around a seagull. We figured the bird was done for, flapping hopelessly about in the water as it was, but wait! A fellow in a small launch motored over and after a couple of attempts, herded the critter over to the gangway (a word it has taken me 24 hours to bring to mind). The fisherman and a friend waited there. With commendable dexterity (and nerve), one of them grabbed the gull by the neck, and they got it disentangled and sent it on its way.

    I'm not sure if this speaks to the human capacity for empathy with even such a useless creature as a seagull, or if he just really liked that lure.

    We strolled about a bit longer, then headed back toward the car.

    L had taken immediate note of the number of ice cream opportunities available even on such a short journey through Portland, and her behavior had been acceptable. A stop at Beal's was in order.

    Then back to the house for Wii, catching up on life, and a lovely pasta dinner.

    On the way back... it rained.