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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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