• 2017 book list

    When I write down a title, I jot down a couple notes to remind myself what I thought of the book. This, it turns out, is fortunate because many times — even though I read the book less than a year ago — I can not, for the life of me, remember anything, not the characters, not the setting, not the plot. Sometimes I don’t even remember the book itself. Am I losing my mind?

    *The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss. Lovely and rich, but it left me confused. I felt like there were lots of pieces that should fit together but didn’t.

    *Tiny, Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life by Dear Sugar, by Cheryl Strayed. At first I loved the book, but towards the end I tired of the grinding details and reverted to skimming.

    *Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal. A light, fun read.

    *In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, by Neil White. I quit about halfway through: lack of plot.

    *The Clean House, by Sarah Ruhl. A play: entertaining and fun.

    *The Nest, by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. Fast-paced, but shallow and slightly dull.

    *A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression, by Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe. Some parts were fascinating, but much of it I skimmed.

    *The Woman Said Yes: Encounters with Life and Death, by Jessamyn West. Interesting stories — I learned an awful lot about tuberculosis! — but the book seemed poorly edited and organized.

    *Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J. D. Vance. After all the the hype, I expected more…

    *Are You Anybody?, by Jeffrey Tambor. A pleasant read about an interesting (but difficult, I imagine) person. Bonus: I gleaned some helpful acting tips and perspectives.

    *Anything Is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout. Quiet and meandering, exquisitely written.

    *A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman. Absolutely splendid! My husband loved it, too. And then we watched the movie and thoroughly enjoyed it. (And my husband, who hates slow movies, got a huge kick out of it, probably because Ove reminds him of himself.) (ALSO, the engagement scene is ours completely: car, parking lot, averted gaze, etc. The only thing missing in the movie version is the turkey plant/factory in the background.)

    *The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue. Quite good, and the ending was superb.

    *Modern Lovers, by Emma Straub. Lightweight, but entertaining.

    *Option B, by Sheryl Sandberg: Facing Adversity, Building Resiliance, and Finding Joy. My world wasn’t rocked, but I appreciated some of her perspectives.

    *You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, by Sherman Alexie. A wonderful book — enchanting writing style and enlightening (and hard) subject matter. Even so, I felt like the book was about a hundred pages too long.

    *Books for Living: Some Thoughts on Reading, Reflecting, and Embracing Life, by Will Schwalbe. What a fun read! I loved the format: a memoir stemming from the books he’s read. Bonus: the book provided a good bit of read-aloud material to share with the family at the supper table. 

    *The King is Always Above the People, by Daniel Alarcon. A collection of engaging, and slightly strange, short stories.

    *Turtles All The Way Down, by John Green. It’s a best seller for a reason! I inhaled this book in one day, on our trip home from Tennessee. One of my favorites for the year.

    *Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Eegan. Well-written, but the story didn’t suck me in.

    *Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward. Fascinating subject matter, but a bit odd.

    *Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdrich. Supremely excellent … until the final section when the author’s tone changed from realistic and believable to dreamy-weird. The change was so jarring (and so crushingly disappointing because the story was so good — if nothing else, read it for the seven-page birth scene) that it made me wonder if Erdrich simply got sick of writing the story and decided to quit. Um, Editor? Hello???

    *The Rules Do Not Apply, by Ariel Levy. A fast read, engaging and well-written.

    What memorable, life-changing, page-turning books did you read this year? What are you reading right now? (Currently, I’m reading two books — The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott and Where the Past Begins by Amy Tan — and I have a couple other books in my queue for when those are done, but after that I’ll be casting about for suggestions, so … help?!)

    P.S. Book Lists of 2016, 2015, and 2014.

    This same time, years previous: 2016 garden stats and notes, remembering Guatemala, our apocalypse, tamales, eggnog, throwing it down.

  • balsamic-glazed roasted butternut squash and brussel sprouts

    Last week, my mom came over to finish the second season of Stranger Things with my older daughter and I. We ate Eggos to celebrate. Also, coffee and ginger cookies. And, in keeping with our snacky supper theme, the roasted brussel sprouts and butternut squash with a balsamic reduction glaze and pomegranate seeds that I had made as an experiment…and to counterbalance all the sugar. We — mostly my mother and I — ate all of it, every single little caramelized chunk of sweet butternut, blackened lacy piece of sprout, and juicy pomegranate jewel.

    I made it again Saturday afternoon, this time when there was still daylight so I could take photos. Some friends had popped in for a visit, so while we caught up on life, I chopped veggies and snapped photos.

    Once the veggies were roasted, I transferred them to a platter and dressed them prettily before snapping the last couple pictures and then scooping some into a bowl and plopping back down on my rocker.

    “Feel free to help yourself,” I said, gesturing at the platter with my fork, my mouth full.

    And they did.

    Balsamic-Glazed Roasted Butternut Squash and Brussel Sprouts
    Adapted from Ree Drummond of The Pioneer Woman.

    Leftovers are great, but I still think this is best served fresh from the oven, either warm or at room temperature.

    For the glaze, I used a fancy blackberry balsamic vinegar that my aunt gave me. Unfortunately, the fruity flavor dissipated with the cooking, so maybe just use regular balsamic and then add the fancier stuff at the end for a flavor boost?

    1 butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cubed
    2 pounds brussel sprouts, trimmed and quartered
    1-2 red onions, cut into chunks
    Olive oil
    ½ -1 teaspoon chili powder
    Salt and black pepper
    Balsamic vinegar reduction glaze (see below)
    ½ cup pomegranate seeds

    On a large, sided baking sheet, toss the onions, butternut, and brussel sprouts with plenty of olive oil. Sprinkle with chili powder and lots of salt and pepper. Bake at 450 degrees for 25-35 minutes, or until the butternut is fork-tender.

    While the veggies are roasting, make the reduction glaze…

    Balsamic vinegar reduction glaze:
    1 cup balsamic vinegar
    ¼ cup brown sugar

    Bring the vinegar and sugar to a boil over medium high heat and then simmer for 15 – 20 minutes. It’s easy for this glaze to take on a slight burned flavor, so take care not to cook for too long. Also, if you like (and I did), stir in a tablespoon of fresh balsamic at the end to sharpen the flavors.

    Transfer the roasted veggies to a serving platter and drizzle the glaze over top (you probably won’t use all of it). Scatter the pomegranate seeds over top and sprinkle with more freshly ground black pepper.

    This same time, years previous: 2016 book list, sex for all creation, old-fashioned sour cream cake donuts, 2014 book list, cheese ball, hot buttered rolls, bacon-jalapeno cheese ball, for my walls, spaghetti carbonara.

  • ludicrous mashed potatoes

    My method for making mashed potatoes is so basic that I’ve never bothered with a recipe. I make them like my mom taught me: boiled, peeled potatoes whipped into creamy nirvana with a hand-held mixer (though ever since my mixer died I’ve been using either a ricer or a hand-held masher thingy) and then doused with hot milk, a generous blob of melted butter, and plenty of salt.

    But then I read in Bon Appetit (yes, while at my children’s allergy appointment — where do YOU do your Bon Appetit reading?) about the formula for perfect mashed potatoes: four pounds potatoes, two cups milk/cream, and two sticks butter. Which made me shake my head in disbelief: Two sticks of butter? That was insane!

    But then Ree posted a video of her favorite mashed potatoes — four pounds of potatoes, two sticks of butter (plus more for garnish), ½ cup each of heavy cream and half-and-half, and a half pound of cream cheese — and I threw up my hands in surrender. Alright already! I’LL TRY IT.

    I made the ludicrous mashed potatoes — for that is what I’ve taken to calling them — for our Thanksgiving Leftover Remix, bravely plopping the two sticks of butter and the block of cream cheese into the mashed potatoes and then baptizing the whole sinful mess with cream (though I used less than Ree did, self-righteous sniff). Despite all the chilly add-ins, the potatoes were surprisingly warm, but I transferred them into a baking pan and put them in a hot oven for about 15 minutes anyway, just to make sure they were good and hot.

    And the potatoes were utterly delicious. The cream cheese added a rich tang that everyone noticed but couldn’t identify — in other words, while the potatoes were satisfying on their own, they weren’t detractors from the rest of the meal — and everyone raved.

    And you know, in retrospect the whole butter/fat thing doesn’t seem that horrible. We ate less than half of the potatoes for dinner, and then the leftovers lasted another couple meals. When I consider how much butter we go through — at least a stick — when I serve baked potatoes, or all the fat I use to fry up hash browns, the fat-to-potato ratio seems downright reasonable.

    But when I explained my rational for pimping out my mashed potatoes to my mom, she didn’t buy it. “Everything can’t be rich, Jennifer,” she scolded. “You need some plain foods to counterbalance all the other food.”

    Well, sure, Mom. I’m all for ordinary, day-in-and-day-out beans and rice, granola, and green smoothies, but since when did we decide it was acceptable to serve baked potatoes with butter (and cheese and sour cream) but that mashed potatoes — their beaten and abused counterparts — must remain straightlaced and austere? It seems a bit arbitrary to me. Or maybe discriminatory.

    But I don’t know: Maybe Mom is right and we’d all be happier, healthier eaters if we mashed our potatoes with watery, two-percent milk and a moderate blob of butter? Maybe piling on all the dairy products is entirely uncalled for?

    But holding mashed potatoes back from realizing their full-potential hardly seems fair. And they taste so good! Besides, you’ll probably end up eating less in the long-run: with all the butter and cream cheese, they’re more satisfying and filling (each bite is deeply, purely, wholly mashed potato, not the shadow of a mashed potato longed for), so there’s less temptation to pig out.

    So tell me, who do you agree with: the puritanical mother or her mashed potato floozie of a daughter?

    Ludicrous Mashed Potatoes
    Adapted from the November 2017 issue of Bon Appetit and The Pioneer Woman.

    4 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks
    2 sticks butter, plus extra for garnish, if desired
    8 ounces cream cheese
    ¼ cup each heavy whipping cream and half-and-half
    4 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
    Black pepper

    Cover the potatoes with water and boil. Reduce the heat slightly and cook until fork tender. Drain well. Return to the cooking kettle and immediately mash with a handheld masher to release the steam.

    Add two sticks of butter, the cream cheese, the heavy cream, the half-and-half, and the salt. Continue mashing until all the ingredients are combines and the potatoes are creamy. Season to taste.

    Pour the potatoes into a greased 9 x 13 pan. If desired, dot with chunks of butter. (At this point the potatoes can be covered and refrigerated until later.) Bake at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes until the potatoes are heated through and bubbling around the edges.

    This same time, years previous: the quotidian (12.19.16), brightening the dark, mini dramas, supper reading, the quotidian (12.16.13), how to have a dunging out date, toasty oatmeal muffins, the quotidian (12.19.11), chocolate-dipped candied orange rinds.

  • sour candied orange rinds

    This December is shaping up to be, oddly enough, extremely under-scheduled and deliciously relaxed. The calendar is entirely open with no trips and hardly any events, just day after day of ordinary living: hanging out with kids, lots and lots of writing, good books and movies, and, of course, plenty of baking.

    But not too much baking. So far just almond crescents, peppernuts, gingerbread, fig-and-anise pinwheels, and, my most recent sweet experiment, sour candy orange rinds.

    At first I called the candy Adult Sour Patch Orange Rinds, but then my friend was like, Where’s the alcohol? so I had to drop the “adult” from the title, which was probably good because, as my husband pointed out, that title made it sound like candy porn … or something similarly misleading and disturbing. So I’m back to just Sour Candied Orange Rinds. I guess it gets the point across.

    I discovered the recipe while flipping through a Bon Appetit magazine at my children’s allergy appointment. Sour gummy candy from fruit and citric acid? You could eat citric acid straight up and not die?? I was intrigued.

    The method is straightforward enough: triple-boil the rinds to reduce bitterness and then simmer in a sugar syrup before rolling the rinds in sugar that’s been mixed with citric acid. Commenters to the recipe online said that they had trouble with the fruit staying too soft. Me, too. Quick remedy: run the rinds in the dehydrator overnight. Then, because some of the sugar had softened, I tossed them with the leftover sugar-citric acid mix and popped them into jars.

    The candy makes for some serious lip puckering — think sour patch kids but with an edge — but no one has yet to let that stop them from gobbling it up! 

    Sour Candied Orange Rinds
    From the November 2017 issue of Bon Appetit.

    They say that, in place of the oranges, you can also use six limes (or lemons) or three grapefruit.

    Rinds of 4 navel oranges
    3 cups sugar, divided
    2 tablespoons citric acid

    Score the oranges into fourths and peel carefully. Slice the rinds into long, thin slivers.

    Boil four cups of water. Add the orange rinds and boil gently for five minutes. Drain. Repeat two more times, using fresh water each time.

    Return the (thrice-boiled and drained) rinds into the kettle and add two cups of sugar and two cups of water. Bring to a boil and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 30-40 minutes. Drain. Spread the rinds on a cooling rack for 15-30 minutes.

    In a shallow bowl, mix the remaining cup of sugar with the citric acid. Working in batches, toss the rinds in the sugar to coat. Reserve any remaining sugar-citric acid mixture.

    Dehydrate the rinds — either at room temp, or in an oven on the very lowest setting, or in a dehydrator — until no longer wet. Toss with the remaining sugar-citric acid mixture, if desired. Store in airtight glass jars.

    Note: Immediately after dehydrating, my orange rinds were slightly hard, but after a day or two in the glass jars, they had softened a little, turning wonderfully chewy.

    This same time, years previous: science lessons, the quotidian (12.14.15), the quotidian (12.15.14), constant vigilance!, sunrise, sunset, my elephant, crazier than usual, cracked wheat pancakes.

  • in praise of the local arts

    Several of the kids in the neighborhood decided to put on a play, so, off and on, for the last couple weeks, my son has been biking over to his cousins’ house to rehearse. Yesterday was the performance: The Railway Children, in two acts. Parents, grandparents, and siblings gathered in my brother’s house midafternoon. The yard was the stage, and the driveway the auditorium.

    The first act lasted about five minutes (though it took a little longer because one actor didn’t perform according to plan which led to another actor’s meltdown and then a hushed, parent-assisted mediation behind the bushy evergreen marking the edge of stage right). There was a train wreck (for the train, my brother roared in on his little yard tractor), an avalanche (cardboard and tree branches tied together and then drug across the stage yard with a rope), and even an injured child. Such excitement!

    Intermission was twice as long as the first act. While the children changed costumes and set, the adults shivered, visited, and drank the tea that was set out on a little table at the side of the auditorium, all the while imploring the children to hurry, please.

    The second act involved less action and more dialogue (no reading from scripts for this play), as well as honest-to-goodness stage business (sewing while talking!).

    The children finished the production with a big bow and a loudly chorused “We wish you a merry Merry Christmas!”

    Afterward, there was more tea and iced buns (the ones that the dogs didn’t lick), and my brother took all the kids on tractor-wagon rides. The littlest boy distributed flowers to all the actors…

    and there were hugs and high-fives all around.

    The end.

    This same time, years previous: the quotidian (12.12.16), Italian wedding soup, hot chocolate mix, stuffing, light painting, the quotidian (12.12.11), Sunday vignettes: human anatomy, gingerbread men.

  • the quotidian (12.11.17)

    Quotidian: daily, usual or customary; 
    everyday; ordinary; commonplace



    Almond crescents.

    Pounding for chai.

    For curry.

    Pudding cooling.

    My latest breakfast crush: sourdough toast with butter, cream cheese, and bacon.

    Thanksgiving remix: this time with turkey gravy, stuffing balls, and over-the-top mashed potatoes.

    I bake; he sings.

    And…Velvet’s down: a severe case of laminitis.
    Kitchen apothocary.
    “I feel like I have a baby. She gets sick, I call the doctor, I pay for the meds,
    and then I have to take care of her.”
    Attempted selfie.

    Snow!

    His final paper of the semester and the edits to go with.

    This same time, years previous: yeasted streusel cake with lemon glaze, managing my list habit, okonomiyaki!, in my kitchen (sort of): 4:15 p.m., iced, pimento cheese spread, a family outing, peanut butter cookies, cashew brittle.

  • when the dress-up ballgown finally fits

    A few weeks ago, my daughter asked me to come out to the field with my camera. She wanted to do a photoshoot with one of her old dress-up-gowns-that-now-fits, and her horse.

    Out by the shed, with the goats and dogs underfoot, I helped her wriggle into the dress. Zipping it tight was no small feat — Stop breathing, girl! — and then she had to somehow get up on the horse.

    The whole thing was hilariously inelegant, and we spent most of the time either yelling at each other — Just get on the dang horse already! — or doubled over laughing.

    She trotted Velvet around for a minute and then decided she wanted a different halter, so I had to go into the horse shed — Foresight, child, I grumbled —  and rummage around in the dark.

    When I didn’t find it fast enough, she rode the horse straight into the stalI. While she awkwardly lunged over Velvet’s neck, trying to harness (bridle, whatever) her, I tried not to get trampled.

    Back out in the field, she made Velvet canter. But she kept hunching. Her posture was terrible.

    “Put your shoulders back,” I yelled. “That dress is so tight it’s not going anywhere!”

    Even so, she couldn’t stop herself from tugging it up every few seconds. Here, wanna see the photographic evidence?

    When I finally called it quits, she vaulted off the horse…….

    and then promptly plopped down in the middle of all the chicken poop and goat droppings for yet a few more photos, pretty please?

    That girl!

    This same time, years previous: the quotidian (12.5.16), welcoming the stranger, the quotidian (12.7.15), in my kitchen: 6:44 p.m., cinnamon raisin bread, 17 needles and 4 children, holding, iced ginger shortbread, zippy me, baked corn, butter cookies.

  • the quotidian (12.4.17)

    Quotidian: daily, usual or customary; 
    everyday; ordinary; commonplace



    For the love of leftovers. 
    The luscious mascarpone before I destroyed it with soggy ladyfingers.
    Smooth and cold.
    Take it or leave it: how I feel about Bon Appetit’s brown sugar-and-salt dry rub.

    Scraps o’ sprouts.
    Splinter search party.
    Bringing me to my knees, day after day after day.
    The dogs came to blows over this, so he had to put a fence around it.
    (photo by my older daughter)
    I-beam.

    It’s up!

    The fa-la-la-ers.


    (photo by my younger son)
    Upside down and in the middle of the day.

    My child asks a question, I blankstare in response, and bamI’m snapped.

    This same time, years previously: oatmeal sandwich bread (cooling on the counter as I type), nanny-sitting, sushi!!!, baked ziti, red lentil coconut curry, wild, raisin-filled cookies, chocolate truffle cake.

  • by a thread

    These days, I’m failing at life right and left. As proof, I give you the evidence, cold and hard and ruthless…

    1. First, there was the pork loin that I over-smoked by five degrees. You know what happens if you overcook pork? It gives you cotton mouth, as in, take a bite and you feel like you’re chewing on a cotton ball. So we passed it on to my brother’s house. Feel free to throw it out, we said. They never told us whether or not they ate it, and I haven’t bothered to ask.

    2. Then there was the fresh ham, the one that I dry-rubbed, injected with a carefully-researched brine, and then proceeded to oversmoke by a good thirty degrees.

    So distraught was I that for days I couldn’t even talk about it. The morning after, I sat in church stewing in self-pity and rage, desperately attempting to use the scripture (sermon, hymns, anything) to self-soothe. Oversmoking a ham by, oh, SIX HOURS did not mean I was a bad person. Just because I’d spent an entire day and part of a night nursing a hunk of meat that no one would be able to eat didn’t mean anyone loved me less. The smell of smoked meat would eventually dissipate, and so would the sting of failure. People mess up, life goes on, we shall overcome, yadda-yadda.

    But still, I was mad.

    3. Then this week I overcooked a pot roast that I’d been carefully, tenderly marinating in the fridge for several days.

    “Is the meat supposed to be this dry?” the kids asked.

    “No,” I snapped. “I overcooked it.”

    “I hope this isn’t a new pattern,” my husband said, not helpfully.

    4. There’s been a noticeable dearth of bread in the house. I keep whipping up little batches here and there, but then the family scarfs it before I can turn around. Then a couple days ago, my younger son approached me with a plan. “You have to make, like, eight loaves at one time,” he explained. “Then we keep two loaves upstairs and the other six go in the freezer.”

    So the next day I made a big batch of brown bread. Everyone was like, Great! and, FINALLY. Except then they went to cut it. What kind of bread is this? they asked. Is it supposed to be so crumbly?

    So maybe I went a little overboard with the chickpea flour, oat bran, and amaranth, grumble, groan, gr.

    5. I was excited about the tiramisu. I ordered the lady fingers and went to an out-of-the-way store for the seven-dollar pound of mascarpone cheese, and then did a bunch of research to make sure I didn’t botch things. No matter, I still managed to screw it up.

    Apparently the coffee-rum mixture must be cold or it will turn the lady fingers into a soggy, watery mess? I did not know that, but whatever. By now, so accustomed was I to failure that I hardly even flinched. A fancy dessert trashed? OH WELL.

    6. Tonight I made a turkey dinner. Turkey, now, I can do. Turkey is safe. But ten minutes after I popped the bird in the oven, while I was peeling potatoes at the sink, I smelled burning chemicals. Smoke was pouring out of the oven, what the—? I yanked open the oven door to discover the roasting bag melting all over the top heating element, OH FOR CRYING OUT LOUD.

    The turkey ended up just fine, slightly overdone — of course — but edible. As for the family, they thought they’d died and gone to heaven. Probably from shock.

    PS. In other news, writing isn’t going well either.

    I’m hanging on by a thread, people. By a thread.

    This same time, years previous: the quotidian (12.3.12), Friday variety, Mom’s new and improved cabbage salad, beef bourguignon, potatoes in cream with gruyere.

  • Friday fun: books and movies

    Hello there! Just a quick pop-in to talk books and movies because Friday night, yay!

     

    I just started Sing, Unburied, Sing which is shaping up to be quite good. I have another book waiting to be picked up from the library, plus a friend just handed me this book, too. I love it when there’s a plethora of good reading material at my fingertips.

    To the younger two, I am currently reading Jane Eyre. They both drag their feet about it, but now that Mr. Rochester’s bed went up in flames, they’re a little more engaged.

    My younger son is reading the first book in The Wheel of Time series. At first he didn’t like it, but I made him persevere and now he’s hooked. With fourteen ENORMOUS books in the series, he should be good to go for the entire winter, me thinks.

    I had both my older two kids read this Time article. My older daughter said she was going to snapchat it to her friends (ha). My older son says I should read this Atlantic article (also about smartphones) next.

    ***

    Last night we finished watching season three of The Great British Baking Show. It’s my favorite season thus far. I cried.

    Olive Kitteridge: my mother got the DVDs through Netflix and I finished watching them last night. After the first episode (there are four), my husband refused to watch, saying they were too depressing. I, however, found them absolutely delightful. Frances McDormand is a superb actor (and she has a new movie coming out, yay). Highly, highly recommend.

    I’m mulling over whether or not Monty Python and the Holy Grail would be a good family movie. It’s been so long since I’ve seen it. Thoughts?

    I can’t wait until Lady Bird hits Redbox!

    I’m rewatching all of Stranger Things, this time with my mother and older daughter (see photo). Tonight is our third viewing session this week (we’ll finish season one and maybe start on season two)!

    ***

    In other news, I made a tiramisu and tomorrow is our post-Thanksgiving turkey feast. Also, we might get our tree.

    Now, gotta go make popcorn….

    Happy first weekend of December!
    xo

    This same time, years previous: writing: behind the scenes, in the sweet kitchen, the day before, the quotidian (12.1.14), Thanksgiving of 2013, pot of red beans.