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While waiting for some bread to bake (a recent Long Distance Kitchen assignment) I decided that I would figure out exactly how far behind I am on reporting in with my recipe successes and failures.  Lo and behold, there are recipes from MARCH that I haven’t yet written about, so let’s do the super-quick version, in chronological order.

Squash and Fennel Soup: the recipe comes from Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin, a book we both own thanks to Bronwen (and several other recipes will come from here, as well).  It’s technically called Kabocha Squash and Fennel Soup with Creme Fraiche and Candied Pumpkin Seeds.  Since we made it back in Lent, I skipped the creme fraiche, and because I was lazy I skipped the candied pumpkin seeds, although they sound delicious.  No photos exist of this meal, since it wasn’t particularly photogenic, but Bronwen’s got photos of her process.

I used a kabocha squash as called for, which was a new squash to me.  I love fennel, so I was excited about that part.  I subbed olive oil for the butter, and used vegetable stock instead of chicken.  Blending soup in batches is a pain, but otherwise the process was fairly easy.  The flavor of the soup was hard to put my finger on – I liked it, but unfortunately I couldn’t stand to eat a whole bowl at a time.  Was it the kabocha?  Was it the combination of flavors?  I have no idea.  I ate a few small servings, never managing to finish a bowl, and then froze the rest.  Perhaps I’ll try thawing it soon and serving very small portions with something else as the main attraction.

Roasted Vegetables:  Now I’m beginning to realize why I fell behind – there were a few meals in a row that didn’t thrill me, and I got lazy.  The recipe for this (more simple instructions really than a recipe) came from Nigella Lawson’s Forever Summer.  Again no photos, and again Bronwen has some.  The idea is simple: take plenty of new vegetables – potatoes, zucchini, turnips, garlic, carrots, and leeks (although you could sub others easily).  Boil the potatoes for a few minutes, drain them, and throw them in a roasting pan with everything else.  Coat with olive oil and roast.

I had two minor problems: first, it turns out I don’t really like turnips.  So after a few chunks, I ended up eating around them.  Second, the zucchini got a bit mushier than I like, particularly in the leftovers.  Apart from that, this was a good, solid side dish, and it makes me want to experiment roasting other vegetables (I usually stick to potatoes and carrots).  The real beauty is that you don’t need to follow a recipe closely – a good thing when you’re learning to improv with cooking.

Chunky Guacamole: Bronwen sent me two variations on this recipe from The Best New Recipe – one that I could make during Lent, and one with bacon for after Lent.  I fully intended to do the bacon version, but ended up in the mood for regular ol’ guac – which reminds me that I really ought to try the bacon version now that it’s been a while.

Start with 3 avocados.  Mash one together with minced onion & garlic, a small minced jalapeno, cilantro, salt and cumin.  Cube the other avocados and throw them in.  Sprinkle with lime juice and mix lightly.  To make the bacon version, substitute scallions for the onion and add crumbled bacon and some diced tomato.  The bacon-less version was delicious and fresh and everything I wanted it to be, although next time I might reverse the mashed/cubed avocado ratio to make it slightly less chunky.  I’ll definitely come back to this recipe next time I make guacamole.

Chicken Paillards:  I’ll end this catch-up with my most frustrating Long Distance Kitchen experience to date.  This was another recipe from Sunday Suppers at Lucques, and I think it’s one of those recipes where the quality of your equipment – pan and stove – and the presence of a mallet/muscle to pound chicken really matter.  It doesn’t help when you do a miserable job of creating an edible side dish (let’s not even talk about the Worst Mashed Potatoes Ever, okay?)  That said, the chicken was pretty darn tasty once you got past the charred exterior.

Here’s what’s supposed to happen: you pound chicken breasts until they’re 1/3 of an inch thick.  My chicken had this incredible ability to rebound, so I’d get it flattish and then it would pouf back up.  I should’ve waited for my trusty assistant/dinner companion who would have used his perfectionist tendencies/muscle to make that chicken STAY FLAT.   But I was impatient and wanted to start cooking.  Be patient with your chicken – this is a cautionary tale.

Then you line up three dishes – flour, beaten eggs, and a combination of breadcrumbs, parmesan, and chopped parsley – and dip the chicken in each.  Then you heat a saute pan over high heat, swirl some oil in it, and “wait a minute.”  Then cook the chicken 3 minutes.  Then add some butter, cook another minute until the crumbs are “golden brown,” and turn the chicken.  Turn the heat to medium and cook until the other side is golden brown and the chicken is cooked through.  Here was the problem:  long before that first 3 minutes was up, I had blackened chicken on my hands.  The other side was blackened, too, long before it was cooked through.  I’m not sure how it worked for Bronwen and not me, but I definitely wouldn’t heat the pan as high as directed if I work up the courage to make these again.

And I want to make them again, because I loved the flavors in the recipe, and I love chicken with a crispy outer coating, and I loved the caper brown butter sauce that finished it off.  I’ll have to put chicken breasts on my grocery list and see if practice makes perfect.  But I sure gave the cookbook a good chewing out that first time!

Another effort to put my currently-reading list into order.  Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it, but I actually do read books written for grown-ups.  Sometimes they slow me down, since I’m used to quicker, shorter books, but I whizzed through this batch fairly quickly – especially The Help and Blackout.  I’ve been getting into the summer reading spirit, what with all of the kids signing up and getting prizes at the library, and it’s been fun having big fat novels that I can sink into.
Juliet, Naked Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby

An enjoyable read, filled with the same blend of humor and realism as most of Hornby’s books. Not something that’s particularly stuck with me, but satisfying and funny in the moment. I appreciate Hornby’s willingness to avoid any pat resolutions.

Source: my library system

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

I’ve never gotten the fascination with the Salem witch trials, but this story managed to hook me by starting from a different angle. In the main storyline, a historian in the early 90s finds clues leading her to a previously undiscovered primary source, while flashbacks show us the lives of women descended from one of the books early owners, Deliverance Dane. Definitely recommended to anyone interested in either the witch trials or in stories focused on historical discoveries. The resolution was a bit anti-climactic for me, but I definitely enjoyed the ride, and Katherine Kellgren’s reading was, as usual, spot-on.

Source: my library system

A Study in Scarlet A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

This was my first venture into a Sherlock Holmes novel, although I read a few short stories a while back. It’s easy, of course, to see Holmes’ influence on other fictional detectives, and the mystery was the sort where the reader couldn’t possibly solve it from the clues given, but it was fun to go along for the ride with Watson. The only downside to the story was the extensive flashback to the American West that really bogged things down.

Source: my library system

The Help The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Books with 200+ holds don’t usually live up to the hype…or maybe I just assume they won’t and never put them on hold. In this case, I’m glad I waited. The story follows three women in Mississippi in the early 1960s – two black maids and one white woman just out of college. While I can’t speak to the accuracy of any of the viewpoints, it certainly rings true and is compelling in a way that’s never forced or cheesy. It gives a glimpse into the way things were and the reasons it was so hard to change things. Definitely recommended to anyone looking for a novel with compelling characters, a vivid setting, and plenty of meat on its bones.

Source: my library system

Blackout Blackout by Connie Willis

The only thing I didn’t like about this book was the fact that I have to wait until the fall for the conclusion. I would’ve happily broken my back carrying around a massive single volume, if only it meant I could spend more time with the characters and find out what happens. As usual, the book has Willis’ brisk, almost frantic pace, and uses time travel to illuminate history. Unlike in some of her other time travel novels, we don’t get to flip back to the “present day” along the way – like the historians, we’re stuck in 1940s England. This serves the plot, but it also makes the historical elements that much more engrossing. Instead, the story is broken up by switching points of view, following three main characters. A few other characters are thrown in, but I’ll have to wait until All Clear comes out to see their significance.

I have a few theories about things, but I mostly just enjoying the story too much to stop and think about them. Several clues were dropped early on but left hanging, presumably to be resolved in All Clear – I know she’ll follow through. In addition to the full of wondering how all the plot-lines will converge, the story is also satisfying as a piece of historical fiction, bringing alive London during the Blitz. While I’ve read other books set during that time, Willis is the best at putting you there.

Not a work of literary genius, but a perfect couldn’t-put-it-down summer read.

Source: my library system

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Since I’m completely behind on my little obsessive-compulsive habit of writing something about each book I finish (although I guess it’s not completely compulsive if I’m this far behind), I thought I’d catch up in batches, with not-quite-as-much said about each book.  This batch: historical fiction for kids.

Alchemy and Meggy Swann Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman

This is one of those books that pulls you into the past with smells, sounds, tastes, and Shakespearean curses. It gets extra points for explaining alchemy in a way that actually makes sense – as the search for perfection and immortality, rather than just to turn things into gold. Cushman makes you feel both the circumstances and mindset of early Elizabethan England, without turning it into a history lesson or losing any vitality.

As an added bonus, I got to see Cushman speak at Powell’s, where she shared some of her research process and passed around her Newbery medal.

Source: my library
The Death-Defying Pepper Roux The Death-Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean

While there are some marvelous and hilarious things going on in this story, the episodic plot-line never quite gelled for me. Pepper was meant to die by his fourteenth birthday, but feels guilty (yet relieved) by having cheated death as he goes on a series of adventures, taking on different identities and righting various wrongs. The language is fantastic, the characters colorful, and the action a little madcap, but something always kept me at a distance.

The only other McCaughrean I’ve read is her Printz-winning The White Darkness, where I would describe my enjoyment of it as an acquired taste. Like Sym, Pepper doesn’t see the world clearly, blinded by inexperience and the foolishness of the adults in his life. Neither one is completely a sympathetic character, yet you still want things to turn out well for them.

Source: my library

The Storm in the Barn The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan

In my mind, I link this with Out of the Dust, although the only obvious connection is the Dust Bowl. They both, though, have a way of making the dust a key character in the story, and a way of giving the modern reader a hint of what it must have been like to live with the dust. The Storm in the Barn incorporates some fantasy elements, although you could make an argument that it was all in Jack’s dust-addled imagination. The graphic format works well here to give a sense of space and atmosphere, as well as the dust itself. Words are minimal with the loose but powerful images doing most of the work, and the conclusion is completely moving and satisfying.

Source: my library

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I went to the Scholastic warehouse sale today – basically it’s like Costco but with books.  Enormous shelves piled with children’s books, presumably leftover from all the book sales at schools and such, and teachers and librarians and other bookish types wandering the aisles with shopping carts.  Fortunately, it’s not as crowded as Costco, or as overstimulating.  It’s possible, for instance, to push two – TWO – full shopping carts of books to the checkout area.

Yeah, I bought 456 books – paid for by the Friends of the Library, to be given away to kids and teens who finish the summer reading program.  The two other children’s librarians are going later this week – we still need all the picture books, board books, beginning readers, and dozens more chapter books.  I figured two full carts was a good time to call it quits, even if I hadn’t checked everything off my list (drat those fat, fat chapter books).

I’m tired just thinking back on it, but it’s a lot of fun – only my second trip to one of the warehouse sales, and I’m developing my technique.  Although I think I slipped somewhere because I should’ve ended up with multiples of 5…oh well.  Time to go crawl into bed with a book.

The Water Seeker The Water Seeker by Kimberly Willis Holt

It’s moving story, with themes about family, belonging, growing up, and learning to see past the surface of things, set during the 1830s and 40s. It pulls you in, makes you care for characters, doesn’t spare you any of the pain of loss or change, takes you across the country on the Oregon Trail, makes you feel fear and first love. It manages to feel gritty without much violence, and it makes history close and immediate.

But will any kids pick it up off the shelf? I know, I know – just because it won’t get checked out like crazy doesn’t mean there aren’t readers who want and need stories like this. But it’s one of those children’s books that you could imagine published for the adult market with a few small changes. On the other hand, it really is about the experience of being a child – of dealing with change and growing up. Definitely recommended.

Source: I picked up an ARC at PLA.

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One Crazy Summer One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

Excellent books are the hardest to review – all you really want to do is shove them into people’s hands and make them read. Add on the fact that this book has already received plenty of glowing reviews, and it becomes hard to say anything articulate and fresh about it.

A piece of history under-represented in children’s fiction? Check. A whole slew of believable and interesting characters, including one fantastic narrator? Check. A story that manages to cover the microcosm and the macrocosm at the same time, complete with good pacing, humor, the responsibilities of being the oldest child, issues of race, the thrill of adventure, and poetry? Check, check, check.

Just go read it already. If this doesn’t get some kind of shiny sticker come awards season, I’ll be surprised.

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I wrapped up the 48 Hour Book Challenge a little early at 5:30, having spent about a third of the time reading.  Actually, that surprises me because it didn’t feel like that much time.  I probably spent a third of the time sleeping, a third reading, and a third doing everything else.  I didn’t post this sooner since I had to run off to a bbq.

Time spent reading & reviewing: 15 hours, 35 minutes.

I read parts of 5 different books during the challenge: Hester Among the Ruins, Princess of the Midnight Ball, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, Chicks with Sticks (It’s a Purl Thing), and Tom’s Midnight Garden. I’d started Hester before the challenge began, and I’ve still got a good chunk of Deliverance Dane to go, so I read 3 books cover to cover during the 48 hours.

Will I do it again?  Totally – provided it doesn’t fall on a working weekend.  The hardest part was keeping track of my time and tallying it up, and then deciding whether to spend time reviewing or to just keep reading.  I focused mostly on actually reading.  I also had a lot of things planned that took time away from reading, but that helped it feel more exciting and broke up the big chunks of reading.

Unfortunately I didn’t manage to clear some of the dustier things off my to-read shelf, but I did make some room and that’s what counts.  More reviews to follow.

Princess of the Midnight Ball Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’m a sucker for fairy tale retellings, I’ll admit here. As a dance-obsessed kid, I always liked the story of the dancing princesses, worn-out slippers and all. I also really liked the Faerie Tale Theatre version, and strangely I’m more familiar with that than any written version, so I was quite pleased to see a lot of the same elements in George’s retelling. I recently read Wildwood Dancing, another Dancing Princesses retelling that took the story in a very different direction. This one is more satisfying to my childhood self, with enough fleshing out to make it work as a novel.

Unlike the Faerie Tale Theatre version, this one includes darker elements that explain why the princesses dance nightly. This backstory gives the book the perfect amount of tensio, making me wonder why the princesses in other versions are so willing to dance quite so much – what about sleep? The perspective shifts from Galen, a young soldier returning from war, to Rose, the eldest princess. There were a few structural things that I admired in the plotting, particularly the way the reader never follows the princesses to their nightly dancing until Galen does, even though we know what it happening all along.

As a side note, I loved that Galen was a knitter, pulling out wool and needles in any spare moment. For a former solider, it’s a practical skill, plus it makes sense that he’s thrifty and unwilling to waste time sitting around. He’s a wonderfully likable character, and the story has a nice element of romance while still being friendly and appropriate for younger readers. I’d definitely recommend this to fans of Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast, Ella Enchanted, and the like.

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Hester Among the Ruins: A Novel Hester Among the Ruins: A Novel by Binnie Kirshenbaum

This is one of those stories where part of the fascination comes from the fact that the characters are often unlikeable. I never really identified with anyone, but somehow their actions still made sense as part of their personalities. Character and setting are the key players here, with plot taking a backseat. Themes of guilt, culture, and responsibility and restitution for the past run throughout, making an interesting parallel to the story of an affair.

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Well, I’ve had quite a few (fun) distractions from reading in the last day, but am cramming in reading whenever I can.  It turns out I’m unwilling to sacrifice sleep (once I hit the sleepy point) but all the little 10 and 20 minute segments do add up.  Here’s what I’ve been up to since the last check in:

11:50 am – 12:10 pm – listened to The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane in the car.  I intended to go grocery shopping and get back to the books, but got a call from my mom and ended up at my cousin’s birthday party instead.  It was a gorgeous sunny day – a little miracle in weeks and weeks of endless rain – plus a birthday party, a combination I couldn’t refuse.

2:30-2:35, 2:50-3:10, and 3:15-5:05 – continued listening to Deliverance Dane while putting my two batches of sherbet in the ice cream maker, eating cherries, and playing solitaire.

5:05-5:50 pm – took a break from reading to put together a list of recommendations for a friend and choose the next Long Distance Kitchen recipe.

5:50-6:30 – started reading Chicks with Sticks (It’s a Purl Thing) by Elizabeth Lenhard, a fairly light, fun YA book about girls learning to knit.  Tons of descriptions of yarn and knitting projects, with a few patterns included in the back.

6:30-10:45 pm – another long break to get dressed up and go to the ballet.  I splurged on a pair of season tickets for the super-cheap seats last year, one of the best splurges I’ve ever indulged in – and I did the same thing for next year.  Not much more than going to an evening movie, plus a fun excuse to get fancied up and go out.  Plus I love the ballet.

10:45-11:30 pm – read more of Chicks.  Realized I’ve never timed myself on how many hours it takes to read a book – I generally look at it in terms of days, something like “I read 16 books last month, which averages out to about a book every other day.”  My eyes started drooping, so then I went to sleep.

7:50-9:10 am – woke up and continued with Chicks, then got ready for church.

9:40-10:00 am, 12:10-12:20 pm, and 12:30-12:40 pm – listened to Deliverance Dane on the way to church and home again, with a stop at the grocery store because the character ate doughnuts and gave me an awful craving.

12:50-1:15 pm – finished reading Chicks while tucking into the doughnut, coffee, cherries, and a fried egg.

1:15-present – calculated my hours so far and wrote this update.  If I did the math correctly, and I’m making no promises, I’ll be at 12 hours and 35 minutes once I finish this post.  Then it’s back to the books before I miss the last couple hours of my 48 by going to a bbq.  C’est la vie.

June 2010

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