Monday, January 31, 2011

New meal: Jerk Chicken with Rice and Peas

Nigella Lawson is considered by many to be the modern queen of roast chicken. Her initial claim to fame was the simple roast bird, cooked a la her mother used to make it, in her debut cookbook How to Eat. Since then, her subsequent cookbooks have always included new and interesting variations on that kitchen staple. Sometimes it's dressed up, sometimes it's dressed down; sometimes it's just plain nice, and other times it's, well, jerk.

That's meant to be a pun.

I actually saw Nigella making her homestyle jerk chicken on her most recent cooking show, Nigella Cooks, not too long ago. Several things sold me on trying the recipe for myself. For one, it's simple--just pop a bunch of spice-y, savoury ingredients in the food processor and voila! a marinade. It's also economical, since you can plan to use leftover chicken breasts in salads or other meals throughout the week. And I'd never really attempted a chicken recipe like this before, which I thought signified it was time to try one. Nigella makes an excellent tutor.

I made the chicken, which has a terrificly warm, earthy heat--no steam coming out of your ears, don't worry--with Nigella's recommended side dish: rice and peas. I'm rather a novice at cooking rice, but again, what better teacher than Ms. Lawson? I took mine off the heat perhaps just a minute or two too early, as it was still a bit sticky, but it was delicious all the same. I will definitely continue to use my pot with the see-through glass lid when I'm cooking rice. This particular recipe was a real winner.

All things considered, quite a tasty, comforting dinner for the evening of a much-warned-of ice storm.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

New meal: Quinoa Primavera

Sometime before Thanksgiving, inspired by a discussion on the merits of quinoa with a book club friend who cooks gluten free, I went prowling some of my regular go-to recipe sites for quinoa entrees. I'd only ever really made quinoa one way, the same way that my mom does; and although very tasty, that recipe feels like more of a side dish. During my search, I stumbled upon a particularly tasty-sounding quinoa dish on the Whole Foods website. I bookmarked it, made a mental note to try it out soon, and, well, forgot.

I finally made the quinoa primavera tonight, and was it tasty. The quinoa is cooked in water, not broth, which might seem as though it would limit the flavor profile of the dish, but I was pleased to taste that that isn't the case. The cooked quinoa is added to a mixture of red onion, asparagus, green peas, garlic, chicken, and spinach, so the flavor profile is actually quite robust. The variety of textures in the dish, too, is very pleasing.

Considering the facts that a) the whole thing takes less than 30 minutes from start to finish; b) it really is a complete meal in one bowl (lots of veg, ample protein); and c) it's just plain old pretty to look at, I'd say this dish is definitely a winner.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Book #5: Before I Fall

I found Lauren Oliver's Before I Fall on an NPR best teen books of 2010 list a few weeks ago. The premise sounding interesting: a high school girl dies in a car crash, only to wake up again the next morning to find she has six chances to relive her last day. What an interesting premise for exploring what is really important--if you were Samantha Kingston, would you use your last day to get into trouble without the threat of consequences; would you ditch school and spend time with your family; would you try to live a last normal day; would you try to make a difference?

Throughout all of Before I Fall, the idea that people are important come across strongly--which isn't always the case in YA fiction. I was so interested in seeing the changes the protagonist makes on each of her last days, in discovering how her priorities shift. And, more than anything, I wanted to see Sam's last day. Sure, you know the basic fact of how the novel ends. But it's the peripheral details and the human interactions that are more important. Oliver's style enriches such a thoughtful, well-plotted story.

I'd recommend this book for readers who enjoy YA realistic fiction (no vampires!), the strong characterization and interactions of the women's lives and relationships genre, or can't-put-it-down-until-I-know-what-happens quick reads.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

New meal: Double Potato and Halloumi Bake

Most of my friends and family have heard me say, at one time or another, that Nigella has yet to disappoint me. I've been cooking her recipes since the tenth grade (I distinctly remember making her freezer sherbet for some friends that winter), and it's true--none of her recipes have ever failed to turn out wonderfully.

And I have to admit that I had some initial doubts when I made the double potato and halloumi bake from Nigella Bites for dinner the other night. After all, it's basically just a bunch of roasted cut potatoes and veg with some squeaky cheese on top at the end; where is the flavor meant to enter into the equation?

Well, the joke's on me, because it was flavorful, colorful, and all together entirely pleasing. I will definitely be making this super simple dish again. I don't know how Nigella keeps coming up with so many varied, delicious recipe ideas, but trust me, you shouldn't ever doubt her ability to impress.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

New meal: Creamy Asparagus Soup

My very excellent mother sent me back to Bloomington last week with a lot of produce. It has been delicious, but the only potential problem with having lots of produce is that it doesn't stay fresh forever. Thus, Saturday afternoon I was pleased to have stumbled back upon Jamie Oliver's creamy asparagus soup recipe (<-- link to the recipe!) in his book Jamie at Home.

I had only ever had asparagus soup once before (incidentally, that soup is what made me realize that I do actually like asparagus), but this was my first time cooking it myself. I must say, one of the best things about Jamie Oliver's recipes is that they are usually pretty simple. This soup is no exception, and it's particularly healthy, too. He says to serve it with a piece of toast and a fried egg, which I'm sure is lovely, but the soup can stand on its own.

So glad one more meal's worth of leftover soup in my fridge!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Book #4: Sleepwalk with Me

I love Mike Birbiglia. Sure, I love his hilarious stories of the strange things that happen to him (how does such a variety of crazy and unusual happen to one person?), but more than anything else I love how he tells these hilarious stories. So it should be no surprise that I loved reading his new book Sleepwalk with Me: And Other Painfully True Stories.

Birbiglia shares moments from his life pretty much in chronological order, which only serves to demonstrate that, for some reason, the frequency with which funny things happen to him is pretty much a defining feature of his life. For some people, funny things happen to them in high school. For others, the funny things are pretty much restricted to college, or perhaps foreign travel. For Mike Birbiglia, however, these sorts of things happen all the time.

I know that some of Birbiglia's long-time fans hoped that the book would be all original material, but I personally liked that I'd already heard him tell some of his stories before. Birbiglia has such a perfect way of telling his own tales--a mix of great timing, fantastic tone, and a definite sense of irony pepper his oral storytelling; since I already knew some of the stories, I was able to get his voice into my head so it was really like he was reading the whole book to me. Which only made everything even more hilarious.

I would very much suggest this book to people who enjoy listening to Mike Birbiglia live or on NPR; people who like reading humorous memoirs; and people who like the idea that a "normal" American life can be quite a bit, well, odd at times. And definitely laugh-out-loud.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Book #3: Some Girls

When I was browsing the bookstore shelves last week, I spotted Jillian Lauren's memoir Some Girls: My Life in a Harem. The synopsis on the back of the book mentions that Lauren was a young girl living poor in NYC when she took an offer to go to Brunei to basically get paid to look pretty. Turns out the circumstances were a bit more complicated than that, and she ends up in a prince's harem.

The actual book, which I got from the library now that I'm back in town, takes a wider view of Lauren's experiences as a harem girl. She gives some of the major events and life choices that lead up to her decision to fly around the world, and she gives some of the details of what happens after she leaves that world. Although her voice and bluntness could be a bit crass for my taste, it was interesting to read about how a modern harem (oxymoron?) actually works. I did occasionally get annoyed with her passive aggressive moments in which she thinks she's not blaming her parents for her upbringing and choices, but she actually is. Her extreme self-consciousness also seemed a bit contrived at points; I couldn't quite tell if she was trying to find a succinct meaning her actions for her readers' benefit or for her own.

Regardless, I ended up staying up later than I had planned so I could finish the book. While Lauren is absolutely nothing like me, perhaps that's part of the appeal of the read--just like with reality television, you kind of want to see how this tailspin of seemingly bad choices will resolve. Overall, I'd say Lauren's book, though interesting, is more of a trashy beach read than anything else.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Meet Eugene.

He's kind of a character.

He's rather curious.

And he loves stories.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Resolution Two: Do a better job of cooking meals.

Considering the fact that last semester I had to defer to the rather unimpressive library cafeteria or a spoonful of peanut butter to satisfy lunchtime/dinnertime hunger on more than just a few occasions, my second resolution of 2011 is definitely a needed one: to do a better job of planning ahead and cooking my meals.

I enjoy cooking, and I enjoy planning. It would seem to follow, then, that planning my meals for the week shouldn't really be a big deal for me. On a semi-regular basis, however, my Saturday morning meal planning backfires. That dish for Thursday dinner that sounded great on Saturday just doesn't appeal to me when Thursday actually arrives, for instance, or perhaps leftovers have gotten the best of me. It goes downhill from there.

I think part of my problem results from my previous commitment to doing my grocery shopping only on Saturdays. This year I'm going to try to be less averse to making more than one grocery shopping trip per week; maybe that will help assuage the mid-week shift in tastes? Hopefully.

Regardless, I intend to try a bunch of new recipes this year. I've already started making a list of some things that I want to try from my Indian cookbook, and goodness knows Nigella always has plenty of options for every palate. I'm only planning a few days ahead right now, though, so chicken tacos are currently the only food on my radar. As I try new dishes and, hopefully, like them, however, I'll report back. Hopefully you'll find a recipe or two to try this year, too!

The glory that is chicken tacos made in a slow cooker:
  • Put some boneless skinless chicken breasts in the slow cooker.
  • Dump in some water or, for more flavor, chicken broth (you don't need to submerge the poultry, but don't be too skimpy, either), and add a packet of taco seasoning--whatever type your prefer.
  • Put the lid on the slow cooker and cook on high for 2 hours, or on low for 4.
  • Shred the chicken when it's done, then serve with all your favorite taco fixins'. Yum.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Resolution One: Read Books. Lots.

Sorry I've been absent from this blog for so long! Something about being back home for a holiday break, and not having the regular schedule that the academic semester supplies, makes me forget to post. Whoops.

I'm back today to share one of my 2011 resolutions: to read more. That may seem like a silly resolution for a librarian, who probably already reads a lot, but that's what it is nonetheless. More specifically, I want to read at least a book a week (or the equivalent, at least 52 new books this year). That's a potentially long list of things I haven't read before, and I'm pretty excited to have started. Plans are to briefly mention each book here; hopefully you'll find something you'd like to read, too!

The first book I finished this year was Four Queens by Nancy Goldstone. This historical nonfiction book is about four sisters from 13th-century Provence who, despite some relative monetary disadvantage, all make extremely good marriages that make them all queens. With their own strong personalities and intelligence, as well as some political maneuvering on the part of some of their relatives, all four women end up having quite a lot of impact on European politics in the mid 1200s. I love how Goldstone's narrative moved from sister to sister, never settling on one topic too long; this style demonstrates the interconnectedness of politics in medieval Europe, and it also helps hold the reader's attention rapt. I would definitely suggest this book to readers who enjoy historical nonfiction, the Middle Ages, strong females, and/or medieval politics.

Then, last night I finished my second book of the year: Good Omens by Teri Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. While I wasn't quite as enthusiastic about this book as some people I know, I did enjoy most of the main characters and story lines. In this collaboration fantasy, angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley know that the Antichrist has been put on earth; the Apocalypse is coming. Having decided that they rather like living on earth, however, the unlikely friends decide to try to intercede and prevent the Apocalypse. Throw in the Four Horsemen, a witch, a witchhunter, and some other strange and amusing characters and you've got the workings for this book. I didn't find it quite as enjoyable as Gaiman's Stardust or The Graveyard Book, but I have to say I'm not sorry I've read it. If you like Gaiman (in particular, I think, if you like American Gods), you'd likely enjoy Good Omens.

So there you go, books #1 and #2 of my year of reading. Stay tuned throughout the rest of 2011 for some reading suggestions of your own!