Sunday, May 31, 2009

Farmers' Market - May 31

My family is going to be happy, happy, happy that peas are coming in and asparagus is on its way out. I could eat asparagus every day, them, not so much.

From the top left: beautiful lettuces, some early garlic (not sure what this will look like when I cut it open), radishes, pea shoots, asparagus, snap peas (cannot wait for snow peas), late summer honey, table onions, and some beef. Yum!

There were definitely more people shopping and selling today.

If you happen to have fresh snap peas, here's a really nice recipe I made several times last year - Green Peas and Sugar Snap Peas in Sesame Dressing.

Can we talk about rhubarb for a minute? I was going to write a post entitled 'Rhubarb: Friend or Foe?' but I never quite got around to it. I tried a recipe for rhubarb salsa- I thought it was going to be similar to a chutney. Here's a photo of my ingredient gathering.

Anyhow, I made it. I thought the rhubarb smelled funny when I was dicing it, then after it was cooked it was mushy and stringy. I threw the whole thing out which just aggravates me - I hate wasting perfectly good ingredients. There are very few foods that I really don't like. Rhubarb might have joined ranks with lima beans, for me. Maybe I just need to eat something with rhubarb that someone else has made properly, I don't know.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Quite Possibly the Best Book of the Year

I came to be a fan of Molly Wizenberg slowly, in fits and starts. I became aware of her blog Orangette, I think sometime in 2007. I read along, sometimes, not always, but when Molly became a monthly writer for Bon Appetit I became more familiar with her work and with her 'taste' in food. I knew she had a book coming out, I figured I'd read it at some point, heck - I could even wait for the paperback. But then I held it in my hands and paged through it. I put it back. Back to the bookstore another day I looked through it more closely - and knew it had to be mine. I waited for just the right moment to start it. I didn't want to be distracted by traveling and reading obligations - I wanted to focus.

It was worth the wait.

Molly Wizenberg's A Homemade Life is sublime. Delicious. Heartbreaking and life-affirming. Organized in short chapters, each essay is followed by a recipe or sometimes two pertaining to the content of the essay. I was nostalgic as Molly wrote about her childhood in Oklahoma, jealous of the opportunity she had to study in Paris, I became tearful when she wrote with great poignancy of her father's illness and death, and joyful when she finds herself madly in love.

Molly was born to write. In one section, she shares an essay she wrote in high school. It is shocking how well it is written. Molly is a woman who has figured out at a young age what her passion is and has been able to turn that into a life for herself. Hopefully that means we will have many more books by her.

I doled out little bits of this book to myself, chapter by chapter. This past Monday I sat outside and inhaled the last 100 or so pages in one gulp. I didn't want it to end, but I couldn't stop either. If you love food, if you love cooking, you will love this book. Even if you don't, I bet you'll love it anyway.

Here is Molly's lemon yogurt cake that I baked with the girl yesterday.

It was delicious and if you didn't have 'help' I bet you could get it into the oven in five minutes. Seriously.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Potato Gratin - How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I've said before and I'll say it again - I'd love for some sort of potato gratin to be part of my last meal on earth. Barring that, I love to eat it on holidays, with friends, just for Sunday dinner. Potato gratin used to seem a somewhat daunting dish to me, so much to peel, chop and assemble. I suppose I've just done it enough now that I'm used to the process and find it all quite simple.

I've featured a few different potato gratins here on Books and Cooks. First, there was the Yukon Gold Gruyere Galette. Not only is it divine tasting, but Karen mentioned it and suddenly - I had readers. That galette changed my life.

I thought I had posted a photo of my herbed summer squash and potato torte - a summertime favorite for sure. Here is a post by another fan of this torte.

Here is a more simple gratin in process.

Here is the link to the recipe for this one. I actually don't even remember making this to tell you the truth! Good thing I have a blog. I actually made this again just recently for company and used milk for the liquid. It separated in the oven again, but due to necessity, I removed it from the oven and then reheated it - it turned out beautifully.

This brings us to my most recent gratin, Potato-Onion Gratin from Bon Appetit and for which I can find no recipe online. This was another keeper.

Onions are sauteed in olive oil, to which garlic, thyme, rosemary, salt, and pepper are added. They are divided in three parts and layered between peeled and sliced potatoes which are salted and peppered along the way. Chicken broth is poured over the entire thing which is then baked in the oven covered at first then uncovered until finally you end up with this.

So divine. I think I either added too much broth or cooked it too long since they seemed a bit too soft. But. Still very, very good, dairy free, and could be vegan if you used veggie broth.

Ah, the potato gratin. Infinite possibilities.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Well and the Mine

Things are still busy, busy at Chez Books and Cooks. Today is the only day I haven't had to be someplace in the morning, someplace in the evening, and places to go in between. I'm an introvert and a homebody so this is not my favorite way of living. It's fun to see people and do things, but I need down time. Whew.

A week or two ago I was trying to figure out what to read next. Nothing was quite clicking so when my Librarything Early Reviewer book arrived in the mail I began reading it almost immediately. The Well and the Mine was just what I was looking for at that moment. Set in Alabama in the 1930s, The Well and the Mine is the story of a family. Father Albert works hard in the mines, is respected by his peers and has come to the realization that under ground, covered with dirt, all men are equal, black and white. Mother Leta works hard at home where the family grows much of their own food. She's the sort of woman who makes breakfast and tells her husband she'll eat with the children, and when they wake up she tells them she ate with their father. Oldest daughter Virgie is the beauty of the family, unsure about boys who want to walk her home. Tess is the middle child, the precocious one we get to know best. Finally, youngest son Jack is somewhat in the background; what we learn from him comes from the perspective of adulthood.

When the story opens, Tess is relaxing on the porch at dusk when a woman approaches and drops a baby into the family's well. Tess and Virgie decide to try to figure out who the mystery woman is, paying calls to neighbors and acquaintances. Throughout the story, it is obvious that the family is poor, but the girls see a different life being lived in some of their neighbors' homes, where there is not always food to eat or shoes to wear. In the end, the mystery woman is discovered but that is not really the point of this novel. It is the story of the struggle and triumph of a family. The story comes full circle thanks to adult Jack's point of view and there is satisfaction in knowing how things turn out for this family.

The Well and the Mine is a beautifully written debut novel by Gin Phillips. She had me at hello, as they say. I felt completely immersed in the world she created; it was Southern and hot, racial tensions were running high, and I could smell and taste the food Leta prepared. At times, the characters seemed almost too good to be true, but this didn't detract from my enjoyment of this book. Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Farmer's Market - Week 1 of 2009


Look at what I found today:

Spinach, green onions, radishes, asparagus, rhubarb, pork breakfast sausage and wild rice brats. For planting in the garden: basil, thyme, zucchini, and tomatoes - sweet 100's, yellow pear, red grape, and a small orange variety.

I have to tell you, I have never cooked rhubarb before. I'm not even sure I like rhubarb but I thought I should give it a try. Any recommendations for recipes? My husband and daughter are not really into the hot fruit dessert thing (I know, why not?) so I'm thinking muffins or a cake. Another idea I have is chutney.

Sunday mornings are calm at the market. It was cool at 44 degrees and quiet. There are going to be a couple of new vendors this year. One will sell ice cream (!), milk and butter, the other some cheeses and tilapia. I am thrilled to be in farmer's market season.

As an aside, I know I have been a very delinquent blogger lately. Posting, commenting and responding to emails are all taking a back seat to end of the school year activities, dress rehearsals and performances, recitals, picnics and the like. I'll be around more soon.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Have You Heard About THIS???

So, during a lull at work yesterday I was browsing through Amazon's list of popular pre-order books in my two favorite categories. I was excited to see a release date for Nigella's Christmas Book as well as a few other cookbooks I've had my eye on. I then went to the Literature and Fiction list, and what do you suppose I came across?

A new, full-length Margaret Atwood novel to be published in September. Just what I've been hoping for.

Here is the blurb from Amazon:

The long-awaited new novel from Margaret Atwood. The Year of the Flood is a dystopic masterpiece and a testament to her visionary power.

The times and species have been changing at a rapid rate, and the social compact is wearing as thin as environmental stability. Adam One, the kindly leader of the God's Gardeners—a religion devoted to the melding of science and religion, as well as the preservation of all plant and animal life—has long predicted a natural disaster that will alter Earth as we know it. Now it has occurred, obliterating most human life. Two women have survived: Ren, a young trapeze dancer locked inside the high-end sex club Scales and Tails, and Toby, a God's Gardener barricaded inside a luxurious spa where many of the treatments are edible.

Have others survived? Ren's bioartist friend Amanda? Zeb, her eco-fighter stepfather? Her onetime lover, Jimmy? Or the murderous Painballers, survivors of the mutual-elimination Painball prison? Not to mention the shadowy, corrupt policing force of the ruling powers . . .

Meanwhile, gene-spliced life forms are proliferating: the lion/lamb blends, the Mo'hair sheep with human hair, the pigs with human brain tissue. As Adam One and his intrepid hemp-clad band make their way through this strange new world, Ren and Toby will have to decide on their next move. They can't stay locked away . . .

By turns dark, tender, violent, thoughtful, and uneasily hilarious, The Year of the Flood is Atwood at her most brilliant and inventive.

It sounds like a book that will not be for everyone.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Walking People

Growing up in a tiny hamlet in Ireland in the mid 1950s, Greta Cahill is the sort of girl called a 'goose' by her family, one who should stay close to home within the safely of her family. Greta is only a teenager when her older sister Johanna decides to leave Ireland for New York City in the company of another youth, Michael Ward, a boy who is one of 'the walking people' - an Irish gypsy. Greta finds herself along for the ride to New York. Greta jumps right into her new life, working and finding a place to leave. A turn of events and a crisis leaves Greta without the one person she'd always thought she would have nearby - Johanna. The story then jumps ahead in time, and we rejoin Greta as a working mother and wife. Greta holds a secret from her children, one that she is afraid might destroy the life she has so carefully cultivated. Eventually Greta's children bring together the two worlds she has so successfully kept apart.

I really enjoyed reading The Walking People, Mary Beth Keane's debut novel. I loved the narrative, which is traditional, except for the section in which Greta, Johann, and Michael first come to New York. This part is told in letters back and forth to Ireland; the technique really suits this section of the story. I will admit to being a bit confused when reading the prologue of this book which features Michael working his last day as a Sand Hog - men who work underground New York City on a project spanning many years that will help Manhattanites continue to have a supply of water for years to come. While I was fascinated by the work done by the Sand Hogs and researched it a bit, I was a little confused as to why the story began this way instead of with Greta. By the end of the prologue though, things are clear and the reader already knows a bit of how things will turn out for Greta. The turning point of this novel occurs in the middle of the book and while things certainly 'come to a head' if you will at the end of the novel, there is never really a great climactic moment for the reader - though we know there will be for Greta.

Having said that, I would certainly recommend this book. It is beautifully written and I found myself completely absorbed by it. I loved the varying settings of the novel and getting to know Greta from her youth through adulthood. It is a family sage for sure, and a wonderful portrayal of the modern Irish immigrant experience in America.

The Walking People will be published on May 20 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Many thanks to them for this review copy.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

All Caught Up

I began reading Susan Hill's Simon Serrailler crime series late last year and having finished the fourth book The Vows of Silence this week, I'm all caught up. I've written about Hill's books here, here and here. I've come to realize that this series isn't for everyone, which is apparent from the Amazon reviews. Simon himself is not the most likable character, and in fact it often feels as though he isn't the primary character. Despite this series being marketed as a crime series, in actuality the books have a pretty domestic feel to them, the major characters have story lines that carry throughout the books and there are a lot of secondary story lines. The murder/crime portion of these books is unique in that we generally get to know the victims at least a little bit before their demise which makes me feel rather worse about their deaths. Whenever Hill introduces a new character within the text, my first thought is always 'I guess he/she is next' and I'm usually right. All this to say, that while I really enjoy this series I recommend it with caution.

In this fourth installment Simon and the rest of the police force are trying to catch a skilled marksman who is smart and sure of himself. He targets brides or the newly married or engaged in particular. Other story lines involve the adjacent characters, Simon's sister Cat plays a large role in this book among other characters whose stories I won't reveal for fear of spoiling earlier books. A young female priest Jane who Simon may or may not be interested in returned briefly, leaving possibilities open.

I enjoyed this book very much, I haven't read many series books as an adult but I'm finding that they're really comforting - aside from the murder component - in that I can just fall into them and enjoy the ride with characters I already know. The fifth book in this series is coming, apparently, later in 2009 - I hope! I already cannot wait and will be ordering it from The Book Depository. The first three books are available in the US currently.

Inquiring minds want to know - Do you read series books?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Laws of Harmony - Book Tour - Author Interview

Back in February, when I reviewed Judith Ryan Hendricks' fourth novel, The Laws of Harmony I never dreamed I'd be interviewing her one day! The idea that I have the opportunity to correspond with and ask questions of an author whose work I enjoy and respect is a truly thrilling experience and one I never thought I'd have when I began this little blog. Many thanks to Lisa from TLC booktours for offering me this chance.

From my original review, here is short synopsis of The Laws of Harmony:

Sunny Cooper grew up on a commune in New Mexico and as soon as she is an adult she does everything in her power to leave her past behind. She attends college, supports herself, and eventually moves in with her boyfriend Michael. She is looking for a 'normal' life, but events will dictate otherwise. Sunny receives news that Michael has died in a car accident; soon after her home is broken into. Sunny's life is shattered, she realizes that Michael's job was not what it seemed and she is in danger. Sunny sells everything and moves to San Miguel Island, one of the Channel Islands. There she begins again, finding a home, job and new friendships. Several surprise discoveries turn Sunny's life upside down yet again, and she struggles to maintain equilibrium and mend the troubled relationship with her mother whom she left on the commune.

Judith was kind enough to answer a few question. I could literally have asked her 100 different things, but I limited myself to these.

*Food is so often an integral part of your books; what has inspired you to write about food and cooking within your novels?

Food is a physical need, but it’s also deeply symbolic—a touchstone for events and relationships, a way of expressing ourselves creatively and communicating our feelings for other people. It’s so much a part of life that it would be difficult for me conceive of a story that doesn’t incorporate it somehow. Food also makes a great metaphor. As my main character says of her bakery job in Bread Alone, “But maybe the most important thing I learn is that almost any disaster, no matter how awful it looks, can be salvaged if you keep your head and don’t just start dumping things into the garbage.”

*I'm guessing you enjoy cooking yourself! Am I right? Would you share with us some of your favorite things to make?

A few years ago I cleaned out my kitchen files and when I read the recipes, I couldn’t believe I’d ever done those things—Beef Wellington, escargots in parchment, Baked Alaska—dishes with five or six different components that had to be made from scratch. And they had to look perfect. I was working full time then, and I wonder not just how I did it, but why. I suppose it was partly to educate myself about food, partly as a creative outlet, and partly because I had something to prove. Now I prefer cooking (and eating) rustic, simple food. A roast chicken, pasta, fresh veggies from the farmers’ market, handmade bread. These days if I get in the mood to tackle an interesting, time-consuming project, it’s almost always dessert! Like the blackberry brownies that Sunny makes for the Island Fair in The Laws of Harmony.

*Would you talk a bit about your physical writing process? Where, when, on a computer or by hand, is it quiet or noisy, is there food involved?

My writing process involves discovering rather than inventing a story. To discover the story, I have to write it, then write it again. And again. Until it’s right. Which means I probably write a couple thousand pages to produce a 350-page book, but it’s the only technique that works for me.
Books on writing talk about the need for discipline, the need to make yourself sit at your computer or your desk and put words together, but I find that I need discipline to make myself get up and take a break, to go shopping, cook dinner, do the laundry. I’d write a lot more if I could. I like to get my chores done in the morning so I won’t be interrupted once I begin, and then about noon I sit down at the computer and write till dinner time. My office is an extra bedroom with a nice view of the back yard. I usually have a cup of tea or iced coffee and my dog Blue curled up on her rug next to me and I have to have quiet. If I can hear music or conversation, my mind follows it unconsciously and I lose my concentration.

*Who are your favorite authors - for inspiration or just enjoyment? What are you reading right now?

I read both fiction and nonfiction, and anything I like serves as an inspiration in one way or another. I love Dickens, Stevenson, Austen and the Brontes. Graham Greene, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Margaret Atwood, Paul Theroux, Robertson Davies, Jo-Ann Mapson, Roxana Robinson, Judith Guest, Salley Vickers, Kate Atkinson, Anne Tyler, Joanna Trollope. I enjoy mysteries, too, especially P.D. James, Jacqueline Winspear, Donna Leon and Tony Hillerman. For nonfiction, Tom Wolfe, Jon Krakauer, Laurence Gonzales and Annie Dillard. I’m currently reading The Great Man by Kate Christiansen.

*The ending of The Laws of Harmony felt a little bit open ended to me. Is there a chance Sunny Cooper might turn up in another novel?

I think there’s an excellent chance, assuming I live long enough. There are a couple of story lines I could see developing, but I’ve already made a start on two other books, and the idea for a third is simmering on the back burner. Which makes a good segue into the next question…

*Finally, are you working on any new books right now?

I think my next project is going to be the third part of Bread Alone. I’m kind of interested in finding out what those characters are up to about 15 years down the road.

Many, many, thanks to Judi for sharing her thoughts with myself, and my readers. Don't forget to stop by the other stops on the tour.

And finally, here is a blog post Judith did which includes the recipe for Sunny's divine-sounding blackberry brownies - Yum!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Thoughts on Emma

I've been rereading Jane Austen's Emma for my May book club meeting. I cannot wait to see what reactions people have to this novel. I suspect at least one person will not have been thrilled with it.

I doubt that I'll write any sort of review of Emma, but wanted to mention a few things that have made this reading special for me. I warn you now, that there will be spoilers in this post, so if you haven't read Emma, you might want to look away.

I purchased this book, Jane Austen, The World of Her Novels by Deidre Le Faye a few years ago.

It was one of those book that I just had to have right now but of course, years have passed, and while I've browsed this book many times, I've never properly read it. The second part of this book features chapters on each novel, with fairly extensive plot descriptions as well as commentary. The plot descriptions are rather lengthy but have been useful for me in perhaps pointing out things that I missed.

The author mentions something I've read or heard before, that is, that Jane Austen considered Emma a character 'whom no one but myself will much like' and I think that is really true. Emma is truly a difficult character to like. She is attractive and rich and appears to think herself much better than other people. I wonder if readers 200 years ago found this characteristic as unpleasant as I do now. Le Faye also mentions the fact that in Emma, Austen has created a detective story, that in fact 'the clues to the secret engagement between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax have been there all the time, but because Emma did not notice them, neither did we.' I have found great pleasure in seeking out these moment in the book that seem to point to one thing, when another thing is the truth. Frank Churchill is the cunning man in this novel, who is charming but dishonest, who we root for to start with and later wonder how we didn't see his true self.

This chapter on Emma ends with some thrilling revelations. Austen was obviously quite involved with and fond of the characters she created and we know this because she talked about the characters with her own family and what they were doing after the book ended. For example, Emma and Mr Knightley lived with Mr Woodhouse for about two years before they were free to live at Donwell. Jane Fairfax only lived 9 or 10 years after her marriage due to tuberculosis. She told them other little secrets and idea of future matches, and the fact that Mr Knightley was one of her two favorite characters, along with Edmund Bertram. Le Faye includes these sorts of insider tidbits for several of Austen's books making this book a must for Jane Austen fans.