Monday, January 25, 2010

I wish my monkeys were hungry. For things other than syrup, ketchup and popsicles.

I'm struggling a little of late to come up with blog post topics. The days all seem to run together these grey days of winter (though the sun! came! out! today!), and I can't remember much of anything by the time I sit down here in the evening.
I do have two books sitting next to my computer, ones I finished reading recently and keep thinking I should write about. So, even though I'm feeling a little like I've worn out the food/books connection around here lately, I'll share some mini-reviews of these two food related books. I'm sure there's some reason why I've been drawn to this sort of reading lately, something like feeding my soul, but I'm not sure I have the mental energy to go that deep tonight.

I picked this book up at the library. It was on the "New Books" shelf, a location in the library that always gets me, even when I have a backlog of books I really want to get to already. Judging from its subtitle (click the link, I didn't feel like typing it all out), I thought this was going to be a Michael Pollan-esque discussion of eating in our country at a time before factory farms, etc. that kept us locavores by necessity, and that would have been interesting to me. However, what this book actually turned out to be was a collection of lost writings from the Depression era. Seems there was a WPA project that sent writers out to collect information about food traditions in all parts of the country. It was designed to be like some of the travel guides that were written in the same era, but focused on recipes and well loved regional ingredients. It was fascinating for me to read about this program -- the introduction was very well written. Apparently this Kurlansky guy has written other non-fiction stuff: fascinating topics like histories of cod, oysters, and salt, for goodness sakes.
I have always been fascinated by the WPA projects, the art that it generated specifically. It seems like it was such a genius but obvious way to use and encourage the resources of people at our most trying time. I guess I knew that there were writing projects, but they don't seem to get the same attention, and apparently, some of them never came to fruition. The collected writing for this project has been warehoused for decades. Kurlansky didn't edit them as they would have been for the true book; he just picked out some of the most fascinating ones and presents them as is. Eudora Welty and Zora Neale Hurston were on staff, and are represented here.
It was really interesting to read about some food history that has largely died out, like the automats that dispensed food out of little doors when you inserted a dime, and the use of squirrel in stew in the south. There was a whole essay on diner jargon, and lots of dispute between the proper fixins for a clam bake and the correct way to make a clam chowder.
The book is divided up into regions of the country, and while I certainly did not read this entire book, it was exactly the kind of text I love to browse through and discover little tidbits.

Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father's Quest to Raise An Adventurous Eater by Matthew Amster-Burton

This is the other food book I've read so far this winter. The subtitle kind of explains the idea behind the book. I admit, I was hoping for a little more concrete advice from someone who'd been successful at this endeavor. Because if you're going to write a book, you must have had some success, right? I think he has, because his daughter surely seems to eat more than my own children, though he admits she is pretty much a typical preschooler, very choosy, opinionated, and changeable in her appetites.
I really liked Amster-Burton's style. He's funny and self deprecating, and very aware that his own interest in and time to spend on food is unusual. He goes to the grocery store on average five times a week, and sometimes spends several hours a day cooking. However, he also has days that he has to get food on the table in a half hour, and for that, I found some ways to connect. What I most liked was his attitude that food is something to be shared and enjoyed, not something to fight about.
In addition to discussing their adventures, he also includes real recipes, some of which I've tried. I really adored the Penne with Brussels Sprouts and Bacon, but no one else in my house did. I LOVE brussels sprouts, and HELLO, bacon! But even J. was having none of it, and picked around the green stuff. Cumin-Ginger Carrot Coins were a better sell, but still, I was the only one who really enjoyed them. There are several others I've bookmarked to come back to: I'm intrigued by making my own potstickers, one of my favorite foods on earth, and plan to try out Beer Braised Short Ribs with Wheat Berries, because I'm on a stew kick lately. Also, how cool would it be to make your own pretzels? I really doubt I will, but seriously, cool.
The book also has this cool little section in the back about books about food he's enjoyed sharing with his daughter, and thanks to it, the kids and I checked out the adventures of Irving and Muktuk, Two Bad Bears by Daniel Pinkwater. O. was delighted by the bears, and the fact that they would do anything for blueberry muffins. N. was just intrigued that I was discussing naughtiness in conjunction with bears. "Dose bad bears, Mommy? Why?"

You can check out what Amster-Burton continues to be up to with his little adventurer/daughter Iris on his blog Roots and Grubs. He's also teamed up with Molly Wizenberg of Orangette to do a podcast you can find on iTunes called Spilled Milk. I haven't listened yet, but I'll fill you in when I do.

Have I held forth on my devotion to podcasts here yet? No? Okay. I will. Proof that there are things to blog about and look forward to on these gray winter days.

Retiring the Reading List

It's time. It's actually past time. I've read three books already in 2010, but have not yet recorded them on the Reading LIst sidebar, because I didn't want to lose the old list, or get things too confused. So, you'll find in this post the list of books I read in 2009. 38 books! I'm always surprised it isn't more, while at the same time impressed that I found enough time away from television, etc. to read this many. This year, I have been delighted to reacquaint myself with audio books, and can't believe I stayed away from them so long.
It's intriguing to me to see trends in my reading. I obviously reunited some of my old mystery series friends: Goldy Bear the caterer, Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, as well as Park Ranger Anna Piegon. It was nice to hang out with them again. I also did a little foray back into a genre near to my former professional heart: young adult fiction. I remain convinced that some excellent writing is going on in this niche, and envy those adolescents discovering it for the first time. Obviously, this was the year of N.'s food allergy diagnosis, and I included a couple of the books I read in that vein of research on my list.

I'm going to do a little "top ten" here, pulling out the books that particularly delighted or moved me for one reason or another. They're listed in the reverse chronological order that I read them:

Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl: I've already reviewed this book on this blog. You can read my thoughts here.

Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee: There are many things I loved about this book about a Korean-American family, but perhaps the most striking was the way that Lee used omniscient narration to make you empathize with every single character.

Admission by Jean Hanf Korelitz : This story of an admissions officer at Princeton was sad and hopeful at the same time. It has haunted me ever since I put it down.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: This was one of the few books I read this year that made me cry real tears. I'd love to give the gift of experiencing this book to a ninth grader: almost enough to make me return to the classroom. Almost.

The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen -- A unique, illustrated story of an awesome kid who gets hired by the Smithsonian to be a cartographer, unbeknownst of the fact he is only 13 years old. It's also a road trip book, chronicling his journey across the country to Washington DC on his own.

The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett -- One of those that I couldn't believe I hadn't read it before now. I have a long standing love affair with the performance of magic, and can't wait to buy one of my children their first magic set. Meeting characters who made it their life was fascinating. Also, the portrait of small town Nebraska in winter it offers was so compelling: there's a whole scene that talks about WalMart and how it offers hope and comfort that gave me a brand new perspective.

Sing Them Home by Stephane Kallos -- If I were going to have to choose a number one for this list, I might just pick this one so that more people would read it. A story of a family from a small town with a difficult past, dealing with the fresh death of their father as well as confronting memories of their mother. Very interesting meditations on how we celebrate the passings of loved ones.

The Language of Bees by Laurie R. King -- while this isn't my favorite from the series, I am always just enthralled to be immersed in the world of Sherlock Holmes, even for a time. I think I have convinced myself thathe and Mary Russell, his partner and then wife, actually exist

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows: Lots has been written about this book, probably better than I can put it right here. But I love the characters in this book so much, and if you haven't met them yet, you should.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith: Can’t wait to share this sweet story with N.

The format of this post is all screwed up and I simply haven't the patience to fix it right now. I'll just apologize instead. Also, want to thank MEP, my good good friend and my favorite source of reading suggestions. So many of the finds on my top ten list, and my list in general, are ones that she's recommended either on her blog or in person. I look forward to finding out what she, and all of my readers, are reading in 2010!

And here is the complete list, in reverse chronological order:

That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo
Black Out by Lisa Unger
Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl
Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Precept Upon Precept: Isaiah (Ch. 1-23)
Living Dead in Dallas by Charlaine Harris
Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris
Size 12 Is Not Fat by Meg Cabot
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
Admission by Jean Hanf Korelitz
Heat by Bill Buford
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The Yokota Officer's Club by Sarah Bird
The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen
The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett
Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
Night Work by Laurie R. King
The Wednesday Letters by Jason F. Wright
Sing Them Home by Stephane Kallos
The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle
Fatally Flaky by Diane Mott Davidson
The Next Thing on My List by Jill Smolinski
Pretty in Plaid by Jen Lancaster
Borderline by Nevada Barr
The Language of Bees by Laurie R. King
The Love Season by Elin Hilderbrand
A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Shack by William P. Young
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Dewey: The Small Town Library Cat That Touched the World by Vicki Myron
Food Allergy Cookbook by Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne
Caring for Your Child With Severe Food Allergies by Lisa Cipriano Collins
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smitth
Away by Amy Bloom
Interred With Their Bones by Jennifer Lee Carrell
Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Look Who's Talking Now!*

Some favorites overheard in the Small World in the New Year.

O., on January 7th, looking at the accumulating snow out the window: "Mom, I think it really IS going to be a White Christmas!"

O., hanging upside down from an armchair, just returned from the library, where he picked five new DVDs, while mini corn dogs are being cooked for his lunch: "Why do I never get to do what I want???"

O., every night when offering N. her nighttime hug and kiss: "Good night, sweetie pie."

O. to me after I slump into my chair at dinnertime one night: "Doesn't it make you tired to take care of us all day?"

O to me as I'm leaving the house to go to work (briefly) using a little purse I haven't used for five years. "Mommy, where is your big purse? No one is going to know who you are."

O., every single morning (and sometimes as a reminder before he goes to bed): "For breakfast, I want a big waffle cut up with syrup on it."

O., somewhat obsessed with numbers of late: "Mom. Can you count to sixty forty? How about two hundred one thousand?"

O. (loudly) "Jesus Christ!
(loooong pause, during which I start leaping across the room with dagger eyes...)
is born!"

N., when given anything she has requested: "Tanks, dude."

N., particularly excited about a fresh basket of laundry: "Mommy wash zeeba pants fo me??
Ohhhh...tanks, Mom!"

N., after I have told O. to cool it with the attitude in the backseat. "Yeah. Addidude, O."

N., about 10,000 times per day, for every possible scenario:
"Why, Mommy, why??"

N., responding to a "why" question of her own. "Tuz. Beetuz."

N., when asked where anything she has recently been carrying around has gotten to:
"I na know."

N., looking for a particular puzzle piece: "Where is dat?" (I should note that she makes no moves to actually look. Just crosses her arms, shrugs and repeats.)

N., while playing Memory, Disney Princess Edition: "Yessss!! N. winning!"

N., learning first person narration: "N. want tookie. No. I want tookie."

N., after receiving said 'tookie': "I bake in haf for ya?"

N: singing:
"Happy Hurtday to...Spot!"

"Ring Rosie. Dashes. All Fall Down!"

"Baby Deezus is boooorn!"

N:, thinking of snack options: "How bout...dandy!"

N., in another room, hearing her name being discussed: "WHAT??!??" (accompanied by very put upon facial expression)

N., after spinning wildly then falling to the ground. "Dust tidding!"

*Okay, I didn't really want to cue the Bruce Willis-voiced-talking-baby visual here, but seriously. My baby? She is talking. For real.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Now, onto the food.

I have resolved my computer issues, at least for the moment. (I know you were worried) Figured out a way to make several CDs of photos, ran out blank ones, and so abandoned the task for the week. (I should say there are more blank ones upstairs in J's office, I just have not motivated myself to get up there, nor to move the full ones into the "fireproof" box where I store them. This is why I have to finish these things when I start them, or they NEVER get done.)

So the tasks for today included continuing to shovel through the mountain of laundry. Found a whole garbage bag full of dirty ones from our trip to Cleveland that I had forgotten about. (Sorry J. I told you that system was not my system. Yes, it probably does make more sense than tripping over suitcases for a week until I can sort out clean from dirty and then put them away. But it's my system, nonetheless. )

And, I'm working on a plan for the new year to actually stick to some planned meals for the week. Not a resolution, not a set menu, but some concrete ideas of what I want to make when I go to the grocery store, and a reminder posted on the fridge to help me remember to actually cook those meals.

I've had a whole chicken in the freezer for over a month now, one I bought when it was super cheap. It's COLD here this week, so I thought a nice roasted chicken with some biscuits and vegetables sounded cozy. For some reason, I always feel fancy when I'm roasting up a whole chicken, and thus don't do it very often. Why? It's cheap, it doesn't take much time to rub some salt and pepper on it, throw it on top of some vegetables and stick it in the oven. Also, there are almost always leftovers that I can use to make some other dinner, or at least chicken salad. I often spend more time than this messing around with fancying up boneless skinless breasts. While I'm not going to give those up, or the dishes I enjoy making with them, I really should stop buying those rotissierie chickens. Especially since every time I really do want one, I forget that they aren't ready until after 11:00 AM, past the time of my normal grocery run. I think it's the whole turkey for Thanksgiving only thing that gives me pause. Oh, also, I'm not very good at carving a whole chicken up. I can pick pieces of meat off with no problem, but serving actual portions with the bones intact? Not so much.

If you go looking around for a recipe, it seems there are a million different ways to roast a chicken, a million different tips and tricks. Rack, no rack. If you don't have a rack, use veggies to prop it up, or balled up aluminum foil. Rub it with butter. No, just dry it off really well. One place even suggested a hair dryer. High heat, low heat, or a combination of the two. Brine it. Stuff it with lemons, or apples, or herbs. Rub garlic under the skin. Stick garlic into it. So many variables. This is part of why I think it's intimidating when really it shouldn't be.

So here's the recipe for "perfect roast chicken" I (mostly) followed today, and have used before with success. I'm surprised I settled on one from Emeril to try, as I'm not usually a fan. However, I was impressed with a recent interview I heard with him, where he talked about teaching his cooking staff where hearts of palm come from by dissecting an entire palm tree in the kitchen of his restaurant. I really admired the curiosity there.

I remembered again tonight that I find that this recipe creates a really rich tasting chicken, maybe a little too rich. I need to remember to serve it with a salad or something else that will cut the savory quality a little bit.

I also continued to put a dent in the buffalo chicken dip today. I had some of the canned soup I heated up for the kids for lunch, but it was really just a cover for getting out the crackers to dig into that dip again today. It's super easy, and worked really well in my new 1.5 quart crockpot. I refrigerated the dip last night in tupperware and reheated in the microwave and it was still yummy.
Here's the recipe for that:

Buffalo Chicken Dip
1 brick low fat cream cheese
1/2 cup Frank's Red Hot
1/2 cup ranch dressing (you're supposed to use bleu cheese, but I don't like it)
2 small cans of canned chicken breast, drained

Dump it all together in your crock pot. If you want to just bake it, soften the cream cheese first, spread in a shallow baking dish, and then heat at 350 for 20 minutes or so.
I think you're supposed to use crackers and celery to dip in it, but I think it tastes best with tortilla chips. Of course.

What warm and cozy foods are you eating these days? We could use some more suggestions!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Mac Attack

I can't believe that my first post of 2010 is going to be what amounts to a complaint. I really plan to be positive in my outlook for the new year. I know it is going to be a great year for many reasons.
However, for the moment, I have just wasted nearly two hours of my last day of "vacation" before J. heads back to work and O. starts the school schedule up again messing around with my computer and that makes me grumpy. I had meant to spend N's naptime working on my bible study homework, some reading I offered to do for a friend, and taking a shower. Then I got sidetracked by remembering that I wanted to try to figure out how to burn some photos to a CD. You know, start the new year off by being proactive and back up my photos.
I feel very fortunate to have gotten a Macbook for my birthday this year, and in many ways, really like it. But when people ask me about it, I find myself qualifying my love for it with a "but it's been a bit of a learning curve."
This is surprising to me, as I started off as a Mac girl, back when I got my Mac Classic as a freshman in college. Spent many an hour playing Tetris and watching flying toasters cross my screen when I wasn't typing up yet another English paper. I also worked on a Macintosh for about half of my time as a high school teacher. However, I've been working pretty exclusively on a PC for the last five years or so, and had gotten used to working through problems, error messages and viruses on that system.
There are many things about a Mac that are super-intuitive. All the things that a Windows machine, when it is working well, stole from Mac's operating system long ago. But, there are times when it seems as if Apple is trying to keep the casual user on the other side of the glass, and only offer a very simple "one size fits all" way to accomplish a task.
I love iPhoto as a way to organize and store my photos. I think it is excellent at editing for my purposes. And I've found that most places I where I want to upload photos have figured out how to work with iPhoto.
But this seemingly simple task of making some CDs of photos is proving to be FRUSTRATING.
There is a way to do it straight from iPhoto, but I had remembered reading somewhere that if I do it that way, the CD will be unreadable on a PC, or by a photo processing service. My husband still uses a PC, so if I want to share any of these photos with him, or if I ever have need to use the pictures straight from the CD, that is not an option.
Apple Help always seems to be a little less detailed than I'd like, so I usually end up googling my problem and finding an answer on a forum somewhere. This of course, usually ends up producing answers more detailed than I'd like, or having a lot of different solutions that may or may not work. Seems the answer is usually something like "I use this method, try it and see if it works."
When it comes to doing things with photos, that usually amounts to shuffling photos out of iPhoto into some other location. This seems really redundant to me.
There is a way to burn a CD straight from the desktop, but so far, it seems very difficult to find out how many photos I can actually fit on the CD. Once the CD is burned, there does not seem to be any way to add anymore. End result of my 2 hours of work? I now have one CD that has only 20 pictures on it, and a folder with over a gigabyte of images on it that I cannot fit onto one CD, but the computer won't let me start on one and finish on another. It just says to remove some images and try again. So, I'm in a position where I have to guess how many photos might fit on a CD.
There has to be some easier way, right?? And I know when I find it, I'll just adapt, and it will just be the way I do things. I'm just frustrated that it takes another couple of hours every time I have to figure something out on this computer. While I am an Apple fan, and think they do a lot of things right, the "wizards" on a Microsoft program seem to be more helpful in this sort of situation.
I know for many of my readers, what I've just written probably makes no sense. But I know I have some Mac user readers out there. Any thoughts and help for me?
In the meantime, I'm taking a break from high technology to go snack on some of the buffalo chicken dip I made in my brand new little crockpot. Low tech, high yum.