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Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Full Cupboard of Life by Alexsander McCall Smith

This is book #5 in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.

Precious Ramotswe is finding life quite busy in this selection. She has been hired by a local, wealthy beautician to ascertain if four men would be suitable for marriage. Meanwhile, her fiance, Mr. J.L.B Matekoni finds himself in quite the pickle as the Matron of the orphanage farm has arranged for him to jump out of an aeroplane for charity. And of course, there is the ever present question of when Mr. J.L.B Matekoni will agree to a wedding date.

The Full Cupboard of Life brings us back to life in Gabarone, Botswana, to the dusty edge of the Kalahari and reminds the reader of the simpler aspects of life; knowing who your relatives are, your friends, and where you stand in life. I thought this was one of the stronger books in the series so far, full of great little insights to life and the pursuit of contentment. Which can all be accomplished over a good cup of bush tea.

A quick enjoyable book.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Recipe Review from 12/21/09

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! I've got one week left to go on my 2009 New Recipe Tally. It's looking a bit bleak for getting to the 100 new recipes this year, unless I find some sudden urge to bake a slew of cookies or desserts.'s not pay day donuts at work this next week, and I don't have any evening yoga classes, hmmm... something to consider at any rate.

And we are finally digging out from under a significant snow storm! Sorry, no pictures as I left my camera at work (grrr). With temperatures sitting at 32* it was the wet heavy snow. Storm tally's are now coming in at 22". I'm not surprised - it's over chest deep on the dogs!

Luckily I had some great leftover food in the fridge to satisfy that stay at home and curl up feeling:

Minestrone Soup (Moosewood Ckbk by Molly Katzen) 5.0
We had a family get-together and given current diets, dietary requirements, allergies and general food likes and dislikes with 10 people, I found myself needing a vegetarian dish that would travel well, could be reheated on the stove to free up oven space, would complement the main meal (ham) and that majority of the Family would like.

I picked Minestrone Soup. This actually came together very quickly. I did a couple of modifications - I caramelized the onion, I roasted the garlic ahead of time to mellow the flavor, and I used Swiss chard instead of celery (omitting the leaves - potentially distasteful to some). Since this wouldn't be served until the next day, I held off adding the noodles and when reheating the soup, cooked them then. This did turn out more stew-like than soup like, but a bigger pot and more liquid would quickly fix that. Reheating would also be a snap in a crockpot if feeding a crowd. I'll be making this again.

Potato Gratin (Ckng Lght, Nov 2009) 4.0
This was amazingly easy - especially with my new mandolin! Zip! Zip! Zip! 2 lbs of potatoes were evenly sliced in about 5 minutes (Even better with no lost finger tips!) Combine the potatoes with whole milk, shallots and seasoning in a skillet and cook for about 10 minutes. Spread into a oiled baking dish, top with some Gruyer and Parmesan cheese and bake for about 35 minutes. That is it! I thought these could have used a little more flavor in the way of a bit more butter or seasoning. Perhaps even a bit of cheddar cheese added to the mix. Still, they turned out very good and I won't hesitate to make these again.

Lentil Walnut [Loaf] (modified from Moosewood Ckbk by Molly Katzen)
This cookbook is really my go-to cookbook for good vegetarian recipes. It's the one I reach for when I need to make something for the SIL because the flavors are ones that are easily recognized and the dishes are not "out there". I picked this dish to complement a roast beast dinner and thought it would go good with gravy (she not a strict vegetarian). It was fairly simple to make - cook the lentils until soft, about 40 minutes, then combine with sauteed mushrooms, onion, garlic, walnuts, Swiss chard and seasonings. Add some bread crumbs or wheat germ as binder.

This was originally supposed to be a burger recipe, but I turned it into a loaf. My alterations included: roasting the garlic, red wine vinegar instead of cider, Swiss chard for the spinach, and wheat bran (because I couldn't find my wheat germ). I also added one egg because the mixture seemed rather dry. I loosely formed a loaf and then put it in some saran wrap to chill overnight. It has to travel so baking will occur when I arrive.

Well, if this was supposed to be a burger recipe, and I added an egg to make it stickier for a loaf, I can't imagine how the burgers were going to stay together! The loaf crumbled upon cutting, but that's okay, it still tasted very good. I would make this one again and perhaps cook the lentils longer to make them a bit more mushy for cohesion.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Faceless Killer by Henning Mankell

Henning Mankell is a Swedish author whose books have been popularized in part by the Wallander series on PBS. I fully admit, I bought this book because I’ve watched all three episodes of Wallender (hey, Kenneth Branaugh is Kurt Wallander, how could it not be good?).

Faceless Killers is set in the early ‘80s in Ystad, Sweden. Kurt Wallander is a 42 year old police sergeant whose wife has just left him, his daughter’s estranged, his Dad is going senile, he has the hots for the new prosecutor, and he is faced with one of the most gruesome murders he has the misfortune to have to investigate. An elderly couple has been tortured and beaten in a remote farm and nobody knows why. The only clue Wallander’s team has to go on is the dying woman’s final word of “foreign”. When the press gets a hold of this tidbit, in an already strained society that lets refugees cross in at any time, this is fuel on the flames and suddenly local refugee camps are the target of hate crimes. Wallander must quickly figure out why these simple farmers would be subject to such a brutal end while balancing his own precarious life.

This was an okay read, a bit typical in the detective genre (ie washed-up alcoholic cop whose wife left him and now he has to solve horrible crime). What I like about this book was I could feel the cold of Sweden, I could sense the desolation in the landscape, and I could see how everyone could be depressed. The story moves along pretty briskly, then seemed to peeter out a bit at the end, as if the author couldn’t quite figure out how to tie everything up in a realistic manner. Still, I think Mankell pulled it off.

As I mentioned earlier, this was the first book in the series and I’m willing to try a couple more to let the characters and setting coalesce.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Recipe Review from 12/14/09

Holey Snowmen! I was on a bit of a cooking spree this last week! It helped that I had a couple of functions that needed extra dishes, and I probably would have had one more if I had been able to make my office potluck. I also realized I don't have any pictures. Sorry! You'll have to use your imagination.

Cranberry-Orange Scones (compliments of the San Gabriel House Bread and Breakfast, Georgetown, TX) 5.0!!
I don't have permission to post this recipe to blog-land, but just let me say these were as good as when the Husband and I visited this past June. I just wished I had made some Devonshire Cream or had thawed some raspberry jam to dollup on them. Light, medium crumb, with a deliciously browned exterior and just enough sweetness to satisfy the tastebuds. I will be making these again, maybe playing around with adding raspberries instead of cranberries...or maybe not. Cranberry orange scones are my favorite flavor!

Wildrice and Dried Fruit Breakfast (Molly!) 5.0
Molly is Office Person Extraordinaire at my local yoga studio. We recently held a staff potluck brunch and she brought this fabulous dish. It was, simply, cooked wild rice mixed with cinnamon and dried fruit, topped with bananas, brown sugar, walnuts and/or almonds, and your choice of (soy) milk or vanilla yogurt. I have to say the vanilla yogurt on top was absolutely divine. She did warm the rice/dried fruit mixture before serving.

I tried this the next day - the dried fruit is whatever grabs your fancy, or in my case, whatever I have in the cupboard, which was apricots, dried plums, and cranberries. I did find the brown sugar to be too sweet when I tried it at home, so I omitted it. So that's what went in. I have a new favorite breakfast dish! Or supper dish! Or munchie dish! It's that good.

Sun Dried Tomato Soup with White Beans and Swiss Chard (Vegetarian Times, Jan 10) 3.0
This was fairly easy to assemble, especially when I can use my immersion blender for that part where the recipe calls for "take x amount out and puree until smooth. The flavor is that of a tomato soup ratcheted up with beans, zucchini, Swiss chard, onion, and parsnips (my sub for carrots). I felt it was like a bisque style soup, with a bit of zing. VT hasn't posted the recipe yet and I'm to lazy to type it out, but it is in the current magazine. This was one of their "Honor Roll" of best up and coming Chefs. I've been enjoying this for lunches with some crackers and cheese.

Wild Mushroom and Lentil Cottage Pie (Ckng Lght, Dec 09) 3.0
Sorry, no typed recipe for this one either. For some reason it's not showing on the Ckng Lght website for me to link to. This one was a bit putzy; you have to start the mashed potatoes first, and while they are cooking, make the lentil and mushroom mixture. You could cheat and buy pre-made mashed potatoes, but I dislike using processed food.

Recipe called for "exotic" mushroom, but since I live in N MN, the most exotic that I can reasonably obtain is shitake. So I used shitake and baby crimini. I also used regular lentils instead of petite and just made sure to cook them longer. This was a satisfying dish. The dash of nutmeg in the mashed potatoes kept my tastebuds going "heeyyy, this is different, and I liked the creamy almost gravy like consistency mushroom/lentil mixture with the potatoes. Very hearty.

I did halve this recipe and still had four, almost five, meals.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

In the Court of the Crimson Kings by S.M. Stirling

This is Decembers book group selection, and I may be jumping the gun a bit by posting my review (we don't meet until the 29th).

From In a stand-alone adventure set in this world’s 2000 AD, Jeremy Wainman is an archaeologist who has achieved a lifelong dream; to travel to Mars and explore the dead cities of the Deep Beyond, searching for the secrets of the Kings Beneath the Mountain and the fallen empire they ruled.

Teyud Zha-Zhalt is the Martian mercenary the Terrans hire as guide and captain of the landship Intrepid Traveller. A secret links her to the deadly intrigues of Dvor il-Adazar, the City That Is A Mountain, where the last aging descendant of the Tollamune Emperors clings to the remnants of his power…and secrets that may trace their origin to the enigmatic Ancients, the Lords of Creation who reshaped the Solar System in the time of the dinosaurs.

When these three meet, the foundations of reality will be shaken—from the lost city of Rema-Dza to the courts of the Crimson Kings.

This was a fun little read. It was interesting to set a book in our "past" and it gave it a 1950's feel but more modern, if that makes any sense. The Martians play a game similar to chess, but they take the principles and apply them to real life. I also found the Martian society interesting and would have liked a bit more explanation and depth to that.

Criticism's include a darn romance. I just don't care for romance in my sf novels. Still, it was tolerable and didn't detract too much from the story. I had trouble swallowing it's probability - the world was set up where Martian's don't particularly like Terrans and here a tough mercenary woman falls in love with the archaeologist she's supposed to be protecting. And yes, if you are thinking Indiana Jones it was mentioned several times in the book as well.

Still the book was pleasant and I would consider reading S.M Stirling again.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Recipe Review from 12/7/09

Whew! The weather sure took a turn toward full fledged winter this week with a semi-blizzard on Tuesday and Wednesday (we ended up with only 3" of snow while parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin topped out at over 20") and temperatures that have dipped well below 0*. Good soup weather and that's what I made!

Carrot and Parsnip Soup (Ckng Lght Annual, 2005) 4.5
I had carrots. I had parsnips. I LOVE soup! What I didn't know was that nearly 2lbs of my carrots had composted on me in the fridge and I barely managed to salvage the 1lb I needed for this recipe. Still, a pound made the soup! Super easy, very tasty and great as leftovers for lunches during the week. I skipped the "parsnip chips" and toasted pumpkin seeds instead. I also added a dollup of heavy cream (I had some to use up) to make it a bit thicker. Delicious!

(Picture from

Carrot and Parnsip Soup with Parnsip Chips
"Winter root vegetables lend their complementary, slightly sweet flavors to this hearty bowl. Stir in more water or broth if you prefer a thinner consistency."

Yield: 6 servings (serving size: 1 1/3 cups soup, about 2 teaspoons parsnip chips, and 1/2 teaspoon chives)"

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 1/2 cups chopped yellow onion
3 cups coarsely chopped parsnip (about 1 pound)
3 cups water
2 1/2 cups coarsely chopped carrot (about 1 pound)
2 (14-ounce) cans fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup (1/8-inch-thick) slices parsnip
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
Heat 1 teaspoon oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion, and cook 10 minutes or until tender, stirring occasionally. Add chopped parsnip, water, carrot, and broth; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 50 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Remove from heat; let stand 5 minutes.

Place half of carrot mixture in a blender; process until smooth. Pour pureed carrot mixture in a large bowl. Repeat procedure with remaining carrot mixture. Stir in salt and pepper.

Heat remaining 5 teaspoons oil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Add parsnip slices; cook 5 minutes or until lightly browned, turning occasionally. Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle parsnip chips and chives over soup.

Antipasto-Style Penne modified (Ckng Lght, Dec 09) 3.5
But I also needed something for dinner and I had bought the ingredients for this a while back. I kept forgetting to buy the penne pasta that it calls for and so I finally said "to heck with it! I'm using whole wheat spaghetti!" This does come together fairly quickly so it's good for a week night dinner. It was okay, not outstanding, a good hearty meal for cold nights. It re-heated well which was in it's favor and I did like the combination of pesto, olives, and artichokes. Skip the proscuittio to make it vegetarian.

Antipasto Style Penne
If you prefer crisp prosciutto, spread it out on a baking sheet and broil 4 minutes.

1 medium bell pepper
1/2 cup pitted kalmata olives
1/3 cup refrigerated pesto
3 oz prosciutto, chopped
1 (7 oz) jar oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes halves, drained and chopped
1 (6 oz) jar marinated quartered artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
8 oz uncooked penne pasta (about 2 cups)
1/2 cup (2 oz) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, divided
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

1) preheat broiler.

2) Cut bell pepper in half lengthwise, discard seed and membranes. Place pepper halves, skin sides up, on a foil lined baking sheet; flatten with hand. Broil 8 minutes or until blackened. Place in zip-top plastic bag; seal. Let stand 5 minutes. Peel and chop bell pepper; place in large bowl. Stir in olives, pesto, prosciutto, tomatoes, and artichoke.

3) Cook pasta according to directions on package omitting fat and salt. Drain. Add cooked pasta and 1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to bell pepper mixture, and toss gently to combine. Spoon about 1 cup pasta mixture into each of 6 bowls, and sprinkle each serving with 2 teaspoons remaining cheese and 2 teaspoons pine nuts.

Serves: 6

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Movie Reviews!

Being in a mind for a movie this past week rather than the usual PBS Mystery selection, I had Earthsea in my Netflix que. It wasn't the scifi movie I wanted, but it was next best thing.

Somehow, though, I had initially overlooked that this movie was 3 hours long. Yikes! That would mean having to set aside a bit of extra time, make sure the dogs were exercised (otherwise we make multiple trips to the door because Ben wants out, Ben wants in, Kia wants out, Ben wants out, Kia wants get the idea.)

Earthsea is a trilogy by Ursula LeGuin, which I've read ages and ages ago. This description from works pretty well for the movie:

Originally broadcast as Legend of Earthsea in December 2004, the Sci-Fi Channel's four-hour miniseries of Earthsea rides the coattails of the Lord of the Rings trilogy with its quest-driven story of humble blacksmith Ged (Shawn Ashmore), a wizard-to-be who is mentored by the magical Ogion (Danny Glover) as he seeks to preserve the realm of Earthsea from the evil King Tygath (Sebastian Roché). Ged's adventures lead him to the priestess Tenar (Kristen Kreuk, from Smallville) and with secrets shared by High Priestess Thar (Isabella Rossellini), they gain the power to prevail over Tygath. [This] skeletal rendering of Earthsea boasts a wealth of digital effects and semi-lavish set design, but Ashmore's lack of charisma hampers a production already fraught with problems. It provoked the wrath of fantasy fans and a firm rejection by author Ursula K. Le Guin, who had watched helplessly (she wasn't involved or consulted) as her classic novels A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan were racially "whitewashed" (in Le Guin's words) nearly beyond recognition. As TV fantasy goes, Earthsea is admirably ambitious, but best enjoyed by those with no awareness of the classic books it is very loosely based on.

I certainly don't know about the "wrath of fantasy fans", but was more dismayed when I realized I had already seen the movie!! I must have borrowed it from someone in my book group. Oh well, it was in and playing, might as well finish it.

As with any fantasy book that is made into a movie, there are going to be notable differences between book and film. No exception. I treated this just like I treated LOTR, it's meant to be enjoyed. So if your a purist, then don't watch the movies. If you like to see a different artists interpretation of a book (like a different artists interpretation of a song) then sit back and enjoy the movie. Just don't get to worked up about some of the mediocre acting.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

This was a 2005 Hugo Winner in the Novel Category for the Glasgow, Scotland, Worldcon. The other nominees included:

• Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke [Bloomsbury, 2004]
• River of Gods by Ian McDonald [Simon & Schuster UK, 2004]
• The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks [Orbit, 2004]
• Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross [Ace, 2004]
• Iron Council by China Miéville [Del Rey, 2004; Macmillan UK, 2004]

This was the only selection I wasn’t able to read in 2005. I wasn’t paying $30.oo for a hardback book of this size and at the time I didn’t have convenient access to a library (downside of living out in the country). However, in the intervening years, one of my fellow book group members found a copy and sold it to me for a mere pittance – like $5.00 or something.

To greatly summarize, set in the early 1800’s, Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell have become England’s last great magicians. Mr. Norrell is very conservative in his use and instruction of magic. Mr. Strange is very outgoing and wishes to share what he knows with whomever he can. As Napoleon threatens English independence, Mr. Strange heads off to the Spanish front to assist where he can in thwarting the enemies war efforts. When Mr. Strange finally returns to England after a three year absence, the two great magicians come to disagree and part ways, each disliking the other more and more. Meanwhile, due to a summoning Mr. Norrell did very early on, we find there is a malignant Fairy who is intent on bringing mischief to our two magicians in the worst possible ways.

I’ve read numerous reviews and talked to others about this book, and this is a Love It or Hate It book. And I can see why. At [900] pages hardback, the book is a doorstop. It is written in the style of Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters – very stylized and formal, full of olde English spellings and mannerisms. Clarke has added significant footnotes that lead the reader off onto other topics for explanation, which can be interesting or annoying at the time. Some of the reviews I’ve read characterized this book as pompous, pretentious and a waste of time.

However, I did find this a fascinating read. I will say first and foremost that Strange/Norrell is NOT a book that can be skimmed. It is a book that requires a bit – no, a lot - of patience to let the story gradually unfold. I think Clark succeeded in doing just that. The plot unfolds subtly, almost silkily, as the reader follows Strange from his discovery of magic, to his instruction under Norrell, to his rise in fame for his assistance with the war effort, and to the precipice that will be his undoing. This was, in my opinion, well worth reading.

If you don’t like long, ‘classically’ written English books, then I will confidently say, don’t bother with this one. However, if you do and you can be patient, you will be rewarded with a really good story. This is good winter reading.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Recipe Review from 12/1/09

It was my intent to have two recipes for review this week, but only one got made. I ended up doing a splurge purchase of rotisserie chicken, boxed stuffing and a jar of gravy one night. Such is the power of grocery shopping when you are really really hungry!

I made this one pretty much as written subbing venison kielbasa for regular. Much to my surprise, this came out a bit on the spicy side - maybe 'tangy' would be a better word than spicy. It made enough for about 4-5 lunches for me, with cheese and crackers along side. I would make this again.

Parkey Stew (Penzeys Dec 2009 catalog)
1 TB olive oil
4 carrots, thinly sliced
3 leeks, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
16 oz chicken broth
1 15 oz can crushed tomatoes
1 small head cabbage, roughly chopped
1 lb kielbasa, sliced
1 tsp caraway seed (optional)
1 tsp marjoram (optional)
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper (or to taste)

In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the carrots and leeks to the pot. Cook until tender, stirring frequently, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for two minutes. Add the broth, tomatoes, cabbage and keilbasa to the pot, along with caraway and marjoram if using. Simmer until the stew is hot and the cabbage is tender 20-30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Movie Reviews!

Much to my great surprise I've watched two movies this week and because my usual book reviews have been a bit slow, I thought I would talk about something different.

Star Trek (the prequel)
I am a closet Star Trek fan...let me clarify...I am an original series Star Trek fan. Yes, <> A Trekkie. On Saturdays my local station used to air the original series and I would plan my afternoon so I could be done by five with my chores so I could sit and watch Capt Kirk and the gang. Until some "Chopper" motorcycle show is on, blast them!

Anyway, this summer I wasn't able to see the new movie in the theaters and my friends tormented me with how awesome of a movie it was and when was I going to see it, and why hadn't I seen it yet, etc. So this Fall I broke down and got a Netflix subscription and carefully arranged my que so Star Trek the prequel would arrive in my mailbox the week it was released on DVD.

OMG! This was soooo cool! I e-mail this response to my tormentors:

There were cool aliens...but not too many.
There was a love interest...but not to much.
There were cool space scenes...can never have too many of those.
There was great special effects...and you can have too many of those**.

I loved how the 'crew' was assembled as they went along. Except Bones seemed older than he should be. And Ohura's pony tail bugged the heck out of me. And FINALLY! An engine room that actually LOOKS like what I imagine an engine should! With tubes and pipes and water and things that go hiss and plink and steam and barrels - kinda looked like the Budweiser or Miller breweries actually.

Criticism's - the red matter. I have to say that was, mmm, not quite right. But I can overlook that. And Scotty's little green man. Phuleze. Over the top cuteness. And I wonder if they got the bug out of Capt Pike (had to close my eyes during that scene...) or if he's still wandering around telling the truth.

I give this 5 stars and may have to go buy the DVD. Can't have too many scifi DVD's in my opinion.

Planet 51 (animated)
I saw a trailer for this while at Worldcon in Montreal and it had me laughing pretty good. It was actually rather accidental that I saw it was going to be released this week and when the parents suggested some Jazz at the 'Toga and dinner, I counter suggested with an animated movie and dinner.

Premise of the movie is an 'alien' lands on Planet 51, where young Lem's life is going pretty good....until he finds himself trying to hide Chuck the astronaut from the Military. The movie is full of misunderstandings, fun special effects, a wheeled robot "Rover" who likes rocks, and all the cute things that make animated movies, well, fun.

I can't say this was the best animated movie I've ever seen (that still might be the first Shrek movie or Spirited Away), but it was a fun way to spend an afternoon. Good for kids older than 5. I think younger than that there isn't much to keep their attention.

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