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I don’t know a thing about Indian cooking, other than the fact that I enjoy eating it on occasion, and that I’d never made it myself.  Until today.  Still, I cheated a little because Bronwen supplied with me with all the spices – make it super simple, but also meaning that I don’t have more sitting around, waiting to be used up.  Probably for the best.

Last week’s recipe from Bronwen was for chana masala (recipe courtesty of smitten kitchen).  Now, since I’ve never had this dish before, I didn’t have anything to compare it to, or any standard of greatness.  I also had no idea what to expect in terms of how hot the dish would be or what the flavor combinations would do.

Thusly, many tears were shed over the onions.  The recipe called for two, which seemed like an awful lot, but they cooked down a lot.  I don’t think I’ve ever cooked with a hot pepper before, but I chose what the nice guy at New Seasons said was the mildest of the lot, and survived with my tongue intact.  I thought I had some fresh ginger, but it turned out to be inedible, so I tossed it and added some powdered with the spice mix.  I wasn’t sure exactly how much to brown the onions, since they weren’t brown at all after ten minutes, so I went a little longer before adding the spices.

I was lazy and used canned everything, although I’d like to get into the habit of using dried beans.  The tomato chunks were larger than I would’ve liked, so I sort of broke them up with the spoon as they simmered.  I like tomato flavor without too many actual tomato pieces, unless we’re talking awesome late summer fresh tomatoes, preferably served with mozzerella or on a sandwich.  But I digress.  As the recipe mentions to do, I used the juice of a whole lemon instead of amchoor powder, which in my inexpert opinion worked very nicely with the spices.

As Bronwen mentioned, most of the effort is prep, with a little bit of stirring.  Super easy, and apparently it’s the kind of thing that reheats well.  I’m also going to experiment with freezing some, because boy howdy, I’ve got more recipes waiting and not enough people to force feed my leftovers.

Not very photogenic, but filling and satisfying.  The spice level came out just right for my taste – enough to make my stuffed up nose run, with a small burn on the tongue, but not that level of heat where you’re desperate for something to cut it.  If you like that kind of heat, a hotter pepper or more cayenne would probably do the trick.  But when you’re not allowed any delicious dairy-based sides to cut the heat, not-too-spicy is perfect.  As you can see, I ate mine with basmati (and some Trader Joe’s naan to snack on since I was cooking hungry).

Next up: Annie’s Cannellini and Pearl Barley Soup, which I have to make Saturday if I’m going to stay on track!

More Long Distance Kitchen updates to come shortly!  Last Wednesday’s recipe was for Smitten Kitchen’s chana masala, but Bronwen kindly sent me a spice packet and it just arrived today, so I will be attempting (and hopefully documenting) it for lunch tomorrow.  But do go read her recap.  Then I will try to figure out when to make the recipe I assigned her last Saturday, for Cannellini and Pearl Barley Soup, veganized.  Feel free to follow along!

In the meantime, I thought I’d revisit that whole “read what I order” goal.  I’ve really got to come up with a catchier name for it.  The 5 Books Project?  Let’s go with that for now.  There’s no specific goal for when I read them, but I’d like to do it sooner rather than later.  So, starting with my January order, these are the first 5:

  • The Hunchback Assignments, Arthur Slade.
  • The Death-Defying Pepper Roux, Geraldine McCaughrean
  • Cosmic, Frank Cottrell Boyce
  • One Crazy Summer, Rita Williams-Garcia
  • The Rock and the River, Kekla Magoon

These weren’t all necessarily published in January, but that’s when I ordered them.  I, of course, reserve the right to switch out titles.  But these are all ones I’ve had my eye on, and I’ve managed to finish The Hunchback Assignments.

For February, my tentative list is:

  • Heist Society, Ally Carter
  • 8th Grade Superzero, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich
  • The Night Fairy, Laura Amy Schlitz
  • Joey Fly Private Eye (Creepy Crawly Crime), Aaron Reynolds
  • Bell Hoot Fables: The Hidden Boy, Jon Berkeley

Now – arg! – I just need to work my way through what’s already on my shelf.

The Hunchback Assignments The Hunchback Assignments by Arthur Slade

I love picking up a book and immediately thinking of several kids to give it to. There’s a historical setting, which is there more for atmosphere than anything else, an orphaned hunchback with a knack for rearranging his features, a benevolent (or is he?) father figure, plenty of steampunk-ish machines, a few strolls through London’s sewers, plenty of action, mysterious associations and secret plots…what more do you need? Plus, the audio version is perfectly narrated, with accents and enough differences between the voices so that you always know who’s talking. It makes for a great read-aloud, particularly with all the fantastic names.

It’s the first in a new series, but it strikes a fine balance where the action of this book is wrapped up, but larger questions remain about the Permanent Association, Modo’s past and future, etc. There’s plenty of action, but story also raises moral questions and the characters are complex and interesting, and I hope that we learn more about them in later installments. I’d say 5th or 6th grade and up.

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Molly Moon's Incredible Book of Hypnotism (Molly Moon) Molly Moon’s Incredible Book of Hypnotism by Georgia Byng

My age 10 and up bookgroup chose this for their February read, so I hustled and got myself a copy. I’d seen the series at the library – it’s hard to miss those covers – but I’d never heard anything about them. Long but fairly fast-paced, we follow Molly Moon’s journey from homely orphan to Broadway star, all thanks to her ability to hypnotize. Things are wacky and Byng isn’t afraid of mildly gross humor, and a lot of Molly’s choices raise interesting moral questions, which all made for interesting discussion.

Entertaining, but treading an interesting line between humor and realism that made it hard for me to personally attach to the story on either level. Still, a good choice for kids looking for nutty adventure stories, and it was definitely a hit with my bookgroup – most kids rated it at 9 out of 10, and two of them went on to read the rest of the series.

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Raiders' Ransom Raiders’ Ransom by Emily Diamand

This is a hard book to categorize: it’s set in the future with some light science fiction elements – I’ll let you discover those for yourself – but the feel is more of a futuristic pirate adventure. There’s a fair amount of action, some laughs, some fun with technology. The characters are engaging, although the most memorable character isn’t even human (and no, I’m not talking about Cat).

The alternating points of view – between a girl and a boy – are nicely done. It’s always easy to tell who’s narrating, and the device is used well to both slip in bits of information that only one character knows. It also serves to give the reader a better impression of the other narrator. One of the funniest uses is when Lilly is pretending to be a boy and we see how Zeph is completely taken in (although an adult character is not), but I realized how effective the double-narration is when Lilly sees Zeph’s home for the first time. His descriptions of the raider village are those of an insider, with no need to explain or give us great detail, but Lilly sees it, like us, as an outsider.

I’d recommend it to adventure-fantasy fans, probably 4th grade and up, although it’s not actually a fantasy. A fun read that sets things up nicely for a sequel, without having a huge cliff-hanger of an ending.

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The House of Dies Drear The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton

Here’s one of those books I never read as a kid – although I think I would have liked it, especially all the deliciously spooky bits with secret tunnels and the huge old house. I checked it out of the library a few months ago when I was weeding the mystery section, and since I just got around to reading it, now I can conveniently count it towards the POC Reading Challenge I signed up for.

Although the story only takes place over a few days, it feels like it covers a larger period of time, probably because of the backstory on the house and Pluto. The first part of the story is suspenseful and spooky, as Thomas’ family moves to into the enormous, historic house that used to be part of the Underground Railroad. Strange things start happening, Thomas’ twin brothers have an aversion to the house, and atmosphere builds.

The story is a bit dated in some areas, but it still works. What doesn’t work is that cover – why on earth can’t they come out with something better that wouldn’t languish on my library shelves? I won’t spoil how the story turns out, but it never gets really scary, and I’m still thinking over the way Hamilton chose to end things. I’d recommend this to kids who like mysteries that aren’t historical fiction but involve bits of history.

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Fire and Hemlock Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones

Why on earth did I never read DWJ in middle school? Probably because I was too busy rereading Robin McKinley, Madeleine L’Engle and L.M. Montgomery. But I think the real answer is so that I have a whole pile of new-to-me books to read as an adult, with delights around every corner, I’m sure. Thanks, Laura!

When I picked this one up at Powell’s, I’d forgotten that it was a Tam Lin retelling. And really, you could read most of the book before you realize it – the beginning of the book has a very subtle fantasy element – the occasional odd encounter that could be explained away somehow. Towards the end of the book, Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer (which I wasn’t familiar with) come in much more heavily. Oddly, exactly the same thing happened in another version of Tam Lin.

I wouldn’t describe the book as action packed at all – it’s more of a thoughtful fantasy, perfect for readers who like to try and puzzle out what it will all mean rather than rushing headlong into action. It’s got a nice spooky element, too, that will appeal to mystery fans. The book begins with Polly remembering her childhood, but she’s in college in the ‘present’ part of the story, which I think makes this a good choice for both middle school and high school readers. There’s a bit of romance (it IS Tam Lin after all) but that really takes a back seat to the more mysterious elements in the story.

Now, off to think gleefully about all the DWJ books waiting for me to read them…

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I just finished up listening to Arthur Slade’s The Hunchback Assignments on audio (review to come), and now I’ve started listening to Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three, the first book in the Prydain chronicles. Now I finally know how to pronounce all those Welsh names!  All the pronunciation guides in the world couldn’t make anything stick in my mind, but listening to the entire series on audio will hopefully do the trick.

I can’t believe I haven’t reread the Prydain books before now.  Oh, I’m sure I read them several times as a kid – enough that my sister and I had some joke about them that I can’t quite remember (or rather, I can’t remember why it seemed so funny at the time).  But I’ve never reread them as an adult.  But when The Book of Three popped up as #82 on Fuse #8’s Top 100 Children’s Novels poll, and a commenter mentioned the audiobooks, I jumped right on it.

And if you’re not eagerly reading the results of the poll each morning as Betsy posts them, what on earth is wrong with you?  Actually, I probably shouldn’t be reading them because my already crazy to-read list is getting even crazier, between the ones I’ve never read (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase) and the ones I want to reread (Beverly Cleary, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Sydney Taylor, Lloyd Alexander, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, and on and on).  Thank goodness for audiobooks, which let me reread without taking time away from reading newer books.  Now I just need to start repeating those Welsh names like a mantra…pri-DAIN pri-DAIN pri-DAIN.

A few weeks ago I was visiting Bronwen and we cooked up yet another cooking scheme – this time we’re calling it the long distance kitchen.  Basically, once a week we each send eachother a recipe, and we’ve got a week to try it.  The trick is that today is the first day of Lent – which means no meat or dairy products until Easter, which is April 4 this year – an early one AND on the same calendar as non-Orthodox churches.

Not only do we want a project to do together, but it’s also a great way to be forced to try new recipes.  Being vegan just makes it more of a challenge.  But of course, this is nothing compared to some of our past food experiments.

We did a few trial runs over the last few weeks, using non-Lenten recipes while we still could, and I’m here to report on the results.  I send a recipe every Saturday, and Bronwen sends one every Wednesday.  For the first Saturday, I gave two options that fit with the “let’s eat dairy while we still can!” spirit.  My first recipe was Dorie Greenspan’s Coco-nana Bread, from her Baking book, which handily used up some bananas that were on the verge.  It made an enormous loaf, which was nowhere near done in the suggested baking time.  By the time the center was done, the edges were a little dry.  Solution?  Heat it up and serve with a scoop of ice cream melting into it.  Delicious, but I might try making either cupcakes or two small loaves with the batter if I make it again.

The back-up option I gave was homemade pizza dough – something I love to do.  It makes pizza nice and cheap, you can do your own toppings, and it makes great leftovers for lunches.  The dough is super easy as long as you remember to start it the night before you want to eat it – I use the Now or Later Pizza recipe in The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion, and I topped mine with mozzerella, salami, mushrooms, and sweet onion and red pepper that had been pre-cooked a bit – delicious, but no photos.

Bronwen’s first recipes were “some v-day-ish red velvet cupcakes with cream cheese frosting” and/or Mushroom Soup.  Shockingly for me, I went for the mushroom soup and skipped the cupcakes (that has got to be a first).  My only modification was to use vegetable broth instead of chicken broth (we’d passed Meatfare Sunday by that point, so I went vegetarian).  It was delicious and quite creamy, and my celery and carrot ended up as tiny little chunks that made a nice contrast to the mushrooms.  I always forget how easy soups can be – I’ll make this one again once that pint of cream is an option again.  It also reheated nicely for lunch the next day, but again, I never managed a photo.

My second week’s recipe was for buttermilk pancakes – I used Martha Stewart’s recipe, which has been my standby for the last few years, and ate them with dollops of Greek yogurt and a drizzle of maple syrup.

Going Bovine Going Bovine by Libba Bray

Oh, Going Bovine. I wanted to like you. A few years back I was at an author signing and heard Libba Bray describe the plot of her new book and my first thought was “thumbs down!” So I can say that it is much, much better than it first sounded to me. Parts are delightfully wacky (while other parts are just…wacky) and it’s funny, and I have a deep affection for anything that’s an homage to Don Quixote (I did once dress up as Don Quixote for a high school party – but let’s not talk about that).

Here’s the thing – after a certain point, I just wanted to know how it would end. And the ending was more or less what I expected – without giving anything away – and it had some nice moments, but it never really got to me. That said, would I recommend it? Sure – to someone looking for something off-beat and funny and irreverent. Maybe someone else will get that emotional punch that I was waiting for.

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February 2010

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