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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith

Polar Star picks up with Arkady Renko after we leave him in Gorky Park. He has been banned from the Party and is now forced to bounce from job to job in Siberia. His current position is on the slime line of the Polar Star's fish processing line in the Baltic Sea - a far cry from the inspector position he held in Moscow. But Russian politics won't leave Renko alone even here, far from Russian soil and in American waters, when a female galley worker is pulled dead from the sea in one of the American fishing nets. Arkady Renko is pulled back into the world of investigation but this time there is no place to hide.

This is the second book in the Arkady Renko series and I have to say I found it a bit slow. As mentioned above, the whole book takes place on a Soviet Factory ship in the Bearing Sea, where American ships bring their fish to be processed rather than returning to a factory on American soil. However, there are only so many people on said ship and Renko pursues this murder with an almost bulldoggish determination that at 384 pages becomes almost tedious. Smith does have one advantage that I admire over other mystery writers is I am truly left guessing until the end "who done it".

It's also been several years since I read Gorky Park and I have to admit I was a bit foggy on some of the details that linked the two books together. So I was left to piece together past bits with current bits and that distracts me from the main story.

I wasn't so turned off that I won't look into the next book. Overall I am enjoying the series and I'll probably try and pick up a used copy next time I'm at my favorite used bookstore (Uncle Edgars for the record).

Monday, January 25, 2010

Recipe Review from 1/18/10

Busy, busy, week last week so I didn’t get recipe #2 made which was a salmon and black bean tostada. Luckily I had made my lunch dish on Sunday so I have one recipe to review:

White Chili with Quick Roasted Garlic (Food Network, Jan/Feb, 2010) 3.0
This was just okay. I’m still on my pantry reduction effort and this used some frozen shredded chicken, dried beans, garlic, and the last of my duck stock. I forgot (again) to soak the beans far enough in advance so they were still a bit crunchy when I had to toss them in the pot. I also felt this recipe lacked something in the base flavor – I know a white chili is supposed to be ‘lighter’ than a traditional tomato based chili, but my tastebuds kept looking for something that wasn’t there. I also forgot to buy a pkg of frozen spinach and I only had a partial bag of fresh so not as much green as recipe called for. I probably won’t make this one again.

White Chili with Quick Roasted Garlic
For the Roasted Garlic:
• 12 cloves garlic, unpeeled
• 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
For the Chili:
• 12 shallots, chopped
• 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
• 3 Anaheim chile peppers
• 3 cloves garlic, minced
• 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
• 1 cup dry white wine
• 7 cups low-sodium chicken broth
• 4 cups shredded cooked chicken
• 1 tablespoon chili powder
• 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
• 1 15-ounce can navy beans, undrained
• Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
• 1 10-ounce box frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
• 3/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
• 1/3 cup heavy cream
• 1 cup grated monterey jack cheese , for garnish

1) Make the roasted garlic: Toss the 12 cloves garlic with the olive oil and 1 teaspoon water in a microwave-safe bowl. Cover, leaving a vent, and microwave until soft, about 90 seconds. Let cool, covered.

2) Prepare the chili: Preheat the broiler. Cook the shallots in the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-low heat until caramelized, about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, place the chiles on a foil-lined broiler pan and broil until charred on all sides, turning, about 8 minutes. Transfer to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let cool. Peel the peppers with your fingers or a paring knife. Stem, seed and chop.

3) Add the minced garlic to the shallots and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the flour and cook, stirring, until toasted, about 3 minutes. Increase the heat to high and add the wine; simmer 2 minutes, scraping up any browned bits from the pan. Add the roasted chiles, 6 cups broth, the chicken, chili powder, cayenne, beans, and salt and black pepper to taste. Return to a simmer.

4) Meanwhile, squeeze the soft pulp from the roasted garlic into a blender or food processor. Add the remaining 1 cup broth and process until smooth. Add to the chili and simmer until thickened, about 30 minutes, adding the spinach during the last 5 minutes. Add the paprika and cream and season with salt and pepper. Garnish with the cheese.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Foreigner by CJ Cherryh

This is January's scifi book group selection. We've been bringing this one to the table for a while now and I'm glad it was finally selected.

From Set on an alien world where the descendants of humans marooned in a long-ago starship accident live segregated from the indigenous atevi on a remote island, this polished and sophisticated tale from the popular author of Hestia addresses the complicated issue of how humans might have to compromise to survive on a planet where they are barely tolerated by the original, humanoid inhabitants. When Bren Cameron, given the name paidhi because he is the only human allowed to mingle with the atevi, survives an assault by an atevi assassin, the shaky detente between the human enclave and the alien society is threatened. Subjected to kidnapping, imprisonment and psychological torture, Cameron finds himself caught between rival factions of atevi as he must grapple with both human and alien xenophobia and with the insidious influence of human technology and culture on an extraterrestrial society.

Cherryh can sometimes be difficult to read; her sentence structure or wording is different enough to give a person serious brain skids. However, thankfully, this book wasn't like that. My complaint with this book is similar to that of Sunshine - we spend way too much time in Bran's head. Get over the fact that you have been kidnapped, are stuck in a secluded mountain castle, and grow some balls. Bran Cameron is supposedly an elite politician/interpreter/liaison between the atevi and the humans. A position represented as being difficult to achieve. Yet, when he is kidnapped, he spends the majority of his time wringing his hands and demanding to know where his security guards are.

Still, it was a very interesting book, a unique look at how an alien culture might view humans who have provided them with a bit of singularity, but who don't want them on the planet. I enjoyed this enough to want to read book two. We'll see about books three through ten later...

Monday, January 18, 2010

Recipe Review from 1/11/10

Two recipes from this past week - both rather reflective of the winter season. I'm struggling a bit to get more veggies with my meals so I've been trying to focus on things that either have veggies in them or I can sub some veggies.

I'm still working on my pantry reduction project - these two recipes used up a box of pasta, a sweet potato, two cheeses, basmati rice and dried hot red chilies. I also inadvertently added on item to my pantry as I brain-farted that lentils aren't dal, so now I have two cups of red lentils to use up.

And I've made my one and only New Years Resolution. LABEL the tubs/bags that go into the freezer!! After throwing four tubs of freezer burned mystery stuff (it didn't even look like the same stuff) I MUST resolve to do a better job of labeling. I just hate wasting food and money.

Duguid's Everyday Dal (Ckng Lght Jan/Feb 10) 3.5
As the recipe states, this is a versatile recipe. I subbed a sweet potato for the carrot, used mung dal (yellow split peas) and served with basmati rice. This recipe comes together fairly quickly so I recommend making sure your ingredients are all set to go ahead of time. The rice can cook while the dish is in it's final simmer. This did turn out a tich bland for me, but I didn't realize until mid-preparation that I was out of mustard seeds. I also skipped the nigella seeds. So some background flavors were missing. With rice, this made about six meals for me (lunches).

Duguid's Everyday Dal
This is a flexible recipe that allows you to play around with new spices, aromatics, or vegetables. You can use fennel seeds in place of the cumin seeds; an onion in place of shallots; or green beans, potatoes, or rinsed and drained canned chickpeas in place of the vegetables. Serve over fluffy rice with a green salad to round out the meal.

Yield: 6 servings (serving size: about 3/4 cup)

1 1/2 cups split hulled mung dal or masoor (red) dal, rinsed and drained
6 cups water
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 bay leaves
1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick
1 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon black or brown mustard seeds
1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon nigella seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 dried small hot red chiles, stemmed
1/2 cup finely chopped shallots
1 cup diced carrot
1 cup cauliflower florets
3/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves
6 lime wedges (optional)
1. Combine dal and 6 cups water in a large saucepan; bring to a boil. Stir in turmeric, bay leaves, and cinnamon stick; partially cover, reduce heat, and simmer 25 minutes or until tender, stirring occasionally. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon salt. Keep warm.

2. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add mustard seeds; cook 1 minute or until seeds pop, stirring constantly. Add ginger and next 4 ingredients (through chiles); cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add shallots; cook 3 minutes or until shallots are tender, stirring frequently. Add carrot and cauliflower; cook 5 minutes or until vegetables are crisp-tender, stirring frequently. Add 1 cup dal mixture and remaining 1 teaspoon salt to carrot mixture; cook 2 minutes, stirring frequently.

3. Add carrot mixture to remaining dal mixture; bring to a boil. Cook 40 minutes or until mixture thickens. Sprinkle each serving with 2 tablespoons cilantro leaves. Garnish with lime wedges, if desired.

Quick Skillet Mac and Cheese (Fine Cooking, Feb/Mar 10) 2.0
I was in the mood for a bit of comfort food and had all the ingredients for this one. I will admit, it seemed a bit putzy for mac and cheese, but my arm certainly got a workout grating the Emmenthaler, the Gruyer and parmesan! In hindsight, I could have used my food processor... I didn't have the full amount of noodles the recipe calls for, so I added some leftover cauliflower (was from dal mentioned above). How can you go wrong with cauliflower and cheese?

Even though it turned out just like the picture, this dish ended up being rather disappointing. My roux didn't thicken the milk like it should have so the dish was a bit liquidy when it went under the broiler. It thickened up overnight in the fridge though. The flavors were just meh, there was an almost grain mouthfeel, and the color of the dish was a bit unappetizing. I won't be making this one again as I ate my way through six days of leftovers.

Quick Skillet Mac and Cheese
Kosher salt
12 oz. dried spiral pasta, such as cavatappi, rotini, or double elbows
3 Tbs. unsalted butter
3 Tbs. all-purpose flour
2 cups low-fat (2%) milk
4 oz. grated Emmentaler (1-1/4 cups)
4 oz. grated Gruyère (1-1/4 cups)
1 Tbs. Dijon mustard
1 Tbs. Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
Freshly ground black pepper
3 oz. finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (3 cups)


Position a rack about 4 inches from the broiler and heat the broiler on high.

Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions until just tender. Drain well and set aside.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a 12-inch ovenproof skillet (preferably cast iron) over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and continue whisking until well combined, about 15 seconds. Whisk in the milk and continue to cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens, 1 to 2 minutes.

Add the Emmentaler, Gruyère, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, and thyme and whisk until the cheese is melted and the mixture is smooth, 2 minutes. Stir in the pasta to coat with the sauce. Off the heat, season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle the Parmigiano-Reggiano evenly over the pasta.

Broil until the top is browned, 3 to 4 minutes, and serve.

photo: Scott Phillips
From Fine Cooking 103, pp. 90
December 30, 2009

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Jhegaala by Steven Brust

Book 11 is basically a mystery. Our hero, Vlad Taltos, has decided he needs to disappear and going to find his Mother's family seems to be the right way to go about it. However, what was supposed to be a somewhat simple genealogical research, ends up being a mystery of great depth and peril.

From Fresh from the collapse of his marriage, and with the criminal Jhereg organization out to eliminate him, Vlad decides to hide out among his relatives in faraway Fenario. All he knows about them is that their family name is Merss and that they live in a paper-making industrial town called Burz.

At first Burz isn't such a bad place, though the paper mill reeks to high heaven. But the longer he stays there, the stranger it becomes. No one will tell him where to find his relatives. Even stranger, when he mentions the name Merss, people think he's threatening them. The witches' coven that every Fenarian town and city should have is nowhere in evidence. And the Guild, which should be protecting the city's craftsmen and traders, is an oppressive, all-powerful organization, into which no tradesman would ever be admitted.

I have decided this wasn't one of Brust's better Vald Taltos books. I enjoy the occasional mystery, but this just didn't have enough depth for me. Vlad spent the first part of the book walking back and forth between two taverns trying to solve what was going on, and the second part of the book lying flat on his back trying to solve what was going on. Throughout the whole thing, his familiar sounds like a parrot "Can we go now, Boss? Can we go now, Boss?"

The plot concept for the ending was moderately interesting, but how he came to the whole "who done it" while lying on his back was rather weak. I gave myself a week to mull my reaction over, and decided overall this book was just 'eh'.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Recipe Review from 1/4/09

Project Freezer Reduction!

The last week has been a good week for soups and stews and while I can't say I'm off and running in the new year with new recipes, I made one. I was making a concerted effort to eat up an accumulation of leftovers and odds and ends that somehow ended up in my fridge. I think the contents of my refrigerator had a conspiracy going...

This recipe and the ones in the week to come are part of an endeavor to use up items that have been sitting around for way to long. Those bags of frozen veggies that got crammed way in the back of the freezer, the package of chicken breasts that were on sale (buy one get one free), etc. Or, in other words, Project Freezer Reduction has begun again!

Last week I used up:
a bag of frozen corn
frozen edamame
and 1 pie crust

Succotash Chowder (Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen, modified)
This turned out just okay. I felt the garlic was a bit much and made a bitter background note to the dish. I didn't have the full amount of beans, which also may have made a difference. I did puree the dish to add some thickness, but even at that, I felt it was rather runny. I think a slightly better preparation would have been to use vegetable stock and thicken it with half and half or even a roux. I feel that would have added some flavor that was missing and cut back on the amount of milk. This made 7 servings. I had it for lunches with cheese and crackers.

Succotash Chowder
1 medium potato, diced
1 tbsp butter or olive oil
2 cups chopped onion
3-4 garlic cloves, crushed or minced
3 stalks swiss chard, leaves removed (or use celery)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp basil (I used dried)
1/2 tsp thyme
3 cups fresh or frozen corn (if frozen, thaw)
2-3 cups cooked lima beans (I used 1 cup edamame; it's all I had)
4 cups milk (lowfat okay)
generous amt black pepper

1) Cook diced potato in boiling water until just tender. Drain and set aside.

2) Melt butter or heat olive oil in large dutch oven. Add onion and saute until caramelized. Add garlic, herbs and Swiss chard and saute about 4 minutes. Stir in corn and saute for about 10 minutes more. Add beans.

3) Optional - puree part of the saute mixture to make the soup thicker.

4) Add potatoes and milk. Season to taste with black pepper. Serve very hot.

This week I am using up:
1 sweet potato
box of spiral pasta
wedge of Gruyere cheese

Quick Skillet Mac and Cheese by Fine Cooking (Feb 10)
Duguid's Everyday Dal (Ckng Lght, Jan/Feb 10)

Though I bought mistakenly bought red lentils instead of mung dal(brain fart) and the folks left me a bag of potatoes to use up. So lost some ground there. Perhaps a gratin is in my future!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

I've been reading Robin McKinley's books for about 25 years now and, for the most part, have enjoyed them. On the flip side, I haven't read so many vampire books. The Vampire books I've read are (yes, I can tell you how many!): Dracula, Those who Haunt the Night by Barbara Hambly, The Madness Season by C.S. Friedman, and Interview With a Vampire and The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice. I haven't even cracked a page on the new Twilight series, much less any of the other vampire books currently on the shelves. However, when my friend reviewed Sunshine here: Disorganized as Usual I had to give this one a whirl.

Taking the description from Goodreads: "Rae Seddon, nicknamed Sunshine, lives a quiet life working at her stepfather's bakery. One night, she goes out to the lake for some peace and quiet. Big mistake. She is set upon by vampires, who take her to an old mansion. They chain her to the wall and leave her with another vampire, who is also chained. But the vampire, Constantine, doesn't try to eat her. Instead, he implores her to tell him stories to keep them both sane. Realizing she will have to save herself, Sunshine calls on the long-forgotten powers her grandmother began to cultivate in her when she was a child. She transforms her pocketknife into a key and unchains herself--and Constantine. Surprised, he agrees to flee with her when she offers to protect him from the sun with magic. They escape back to town, but Constantine knows his enemies won't be far behind, which means that he and Sunshine will have to face them together. A luminous, entrancing novel with an enthralling pair of characters at its heart."

This book was fantastic...with exceptions. I enjoyed the story immensely. I detested the pages and pages of Sunshine agonizing about her sudden ability to do magic when she knew she was from a magical family. I was annoyed by the pages and pages of Sunshine's inner monologue which seemed to be mostly whining. I grew irritated with the pages and pages of exposition describing the world setting. I didn't feel like those pages of explanation added much to the story and I kept finding inconsistencies. I wanted action, not lengthy details on why some humans had demon blood in them and what would happen to them if anyone found out they weren't registered with the Special Forces. I wanted Sunshine to grow some balls and kick vampire ass instead wandering around moping.

Hmm, not exactly a glowing review, but this was a really good book. It's just one you have to read and see for yourself.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Knitting update!

My needles have not been idle, but my camera has! It’s taken me a while to gather all my pics from my end of the year projects.

Easy Drop Stitch Scarf
Here on Ravelry
This was a Yarn Harbor Scarf of the Month selection.
Yarn: Colinette Jitterbug
Sz 4 needles.

Recipient was Office Manager Extraordinaire Molly.

Guageless Hat #106, pattern from Cabin Fever.
Yarn: Fixations by Cascade, one skein solid, one skein self striping;
Sz 4 needles

I’ve made this one before in purples for Finny. This one went to Miss Lydia. There is enough yarn left to make one for Miss Amelia. As with Fin’s second hat, I did the stripes in ½” rather than 1”. Doesn’t come out so blocky.

Marie Grace Daisy Cardigan; pattern from Marie Grace Smith
Here on Ravlery
Yarn: Takhi Yarns Cotton Classic in pink and dark pink
Sz 4 needles.

(colors are brighter in person)

I had a request for a sweater for Miss Amelia, and as I had never done a sweater before I needed a super easy one. This pattern was perfect! I knit this on the road trip to and from Montreal in August, and finished it later in September. I didn’t want to do a little girls sweater in wool, so I picked a cotton. While it knitted up just beautifully, I’m not sure I’m wild about cotton either. It will be interesting to see how it washes and wears. I made it as a 4T, but I have a feeling she will have outgrown it by next fall. It will get handed down to Miss Lydia and I’ll make Miss Amelia a new one.

Easy Lace Dishcloth Nifty Knit Dishcloths by Leisure Arts
Yarn: Sugar and Cream
Sz 4 needles

Yes, you read that correctly. Sz 4 needles. I have found I like the way dishcloths knit up on the smaller needles. They come out being about the same size as a 7 or 8, but not quite so loose and floppy. Though I do have to remember NOT to knit SO DAMN TIGHT.

Finny's Scarf (child size)
Wisdom Yarns - Chicago Marathon and Fortisima Sock Yarn in brown
Sz 4 needles

K2 requested a scarf for the nephew so I dug into the stash remenants and thought something in browns would be appropriate. I should have picked the blue remnants as I ran out of yarn and had to go supplement! Turned out super cute and rumor has it he loves it.

I was also hoping to have my Glowing Colors Afghan finished by this coming weekend, but that's not gonna happen. I some how managed to screw it up. Yes, I am mortified to say I need to rip out the second panel and start it over. At least it knits quickly - as well it should on sz 17 needles!

And on deck are:
Socks! Cascase Heritage yarn, sz 1 needle; no pattern.
Nordic Mittens Payton Yarns, needle size to be determined. Rumor has it these are knitting up rather largish.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Year End Recipe Summary

The weather people said this was going to be a warmer than normal winter for northern Minnesota. I am really wondering what their idea of "warmer" is. This morning was -24 degrees when I woke up with a -25* windchill. A mite bit chilly, yes. But at least the sun is shining!

I don't even have a final recipe to review for 2009. It was my intent to make a Succotash Soup for this past week but I've been eating up leftovers that seem to be mysteriously appearing in my fridge. Not sure where they are coming from...

My goal for 2009 was 100 new recipes so I was 8 short. April, May, July and August were significantly down. Not sure why. It could also be that I was picking recipes that made a weeks worth of leftovers or lunches so I wouldn't have to cook as much. And with the Husband gone so much I'm only cooking for one. It will be interesting to see what 2010 brings.

2009 - 92

As a comparison:

2008 - 129
2007 - 120
2006 - 103
2005 - 137
2004 - 143
2003 - 154
2002 - 129

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