Wednesday, April 27, 2011

New meal: Salmon, Couscous with Pine Nuts, and Roasted Chile-Garlic Broccoli

I've been having a pretty eventful week as far as cooking is concerned. Saturday was the Easter potluck; with the leftover ham and ham bone from that meal, I made split pea soup on Sunday (delicious!). Tuesday night was a potluck surprise bridal shower with the book club girls, for which I made a strawberry fool as one of the dessert options. And tonight was my night to cook here at Rose Pointe.

I've been trying to eat more fish, and so when I saw plenty of ideas and instructions in May's issue of Cooking Light I decided I'd try making salmon for myself and the roommate this week. Did you know how easy it is to make salmon? You did? Why didn't you tell me so I could have started making it for myself sooner?

Turns out cooking salmon is super easy and super quick--something tells me I'll be eating a lot more salmon from here on out! The sides I chose from the magazine were also incredibly simple, and incredibly tasty: couscous with pine nuts and roasted chile-garlic broccoli. The couscous has a great richness because it is cooked in chicken broth, and it also has a brightness from chopped fresh parsley. The broccoli is a perfect contrast with the heat of the chile paste, the sweetness of the garlic, and the crunch of the broccoli. What a fabulous, simple meal!

(My dad will be glad to know that I made his requisite couscous joke: "Do you want some broccoli broccoli to go with your couscous?")

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Book #19: Night of the Living Lawn Ornaments

Some of you may be familiar with the name Emily Ecton--you'll hear it every week at Peter Sagal reads the producing credits of NPR's Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! I love that radio newsquiz, and everyone who has anything to do with it seems to be my type of funny. So, when I heard Emily Ecton has written children's books, I knew I needed to pick one up.

I'm guilty of starting with book #3 in a series--but when the title of book #3 is Night of the Living Lawn Ornaments, can you really blame me? Me, the one who loves garden gnomes and lawn flamingos? Anyway, Night of the Living Lawn Ornaments is the story of a girl named Arlie (short for Arlene), her best friend Ty (a boy), and her cross-dressing Chihuahua Mr. Boots. They happen upon an antique-looking dragonfly pendant, and just for kicks they try it on every lawn ornament, ceramic knickknack, and animal-shaped tchochke they come across--you know, just for fun. Turns out that every lawn ornament, knickknack, and tchochke this pendant touches then comes to life--including a somewhat moody kangaroo stuffed animal, the library's lion statues, and a pork restaurant's hog mascot. The goal for Arlie, Ty, and Mr. Boots is to get things back to normal before anyone starts to notice all of the real live lawn ornaments traipsing about.

While the title seems to suggest a scary-ish plot, Night of the Living Lawn Ornaments is actually more madcap than anything else. It's fast-paced, inventive, and full of some rather strange characters (both of the human and once-inanimate variety), and the fact that it's a series would likely appeal to young fantasy-ish readers just getting out of first chapter books like My Weird School. I'd suggest it to just those readers: the elementary school-aged children with a penchant for the strange and goofy in their reading.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

New Meal: Potato, Squash, and Gruyere Gratin

Last night several of the ladies from my book club came over for a potluck and Easter egg hunt before we headed over to the Easter Vigil. Since my roommate and I hosted, we took care of entree and starchy side. We made a small ham (smoked; delicious!), and we have plans to use the leftovers for soup in the next day or two. I also made a recipe I'd seen online and wanted to try: potato, squash, and gruyere gratin.

Now, the actual recipe (picture at the link) uses goat cheese instead of gruyere. One of the book club girls, however, doesn't particularly like goat cheese, so I made the adaptation. Mmm, was it delicious! I'm very excited I doubled the recipe, because now the roommate and I can look forward to some leftovers. The whole recipe was so easy (with a food processor to do the slicing) and so tasty that I'll definitely be making it again. I recommend you try it, as well, especially if you're trying to get someone to eat veggies who thinks he doesn't like squash.

Our fabulous Easter meal in full:
  • Savory cream cheese wrap hors d'oeuvre
  • Pear, walnut, and feta salad with honey lime vinaigrette
  • Smoked ham
  • Potato, squash, and gruyere gratin
  • Broccoli slaw
  • Bread and butter
  • Crumb cake and fruit
Enjoy the day with some tasty, seasonal treats!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Book #18: Mockingbird

Kathryn Erskine won the 2010 National Book Award for Young People's Literature for her juvenile fiction novel Mockingbird, a first person account of a young girl with Asperger's Syndrome. Caitlin is in fifth grade, and she has a fair amount of trouble relating to her peers. In fact, the only person she really gets--and the only one who really gets her--is her older brother Devon; he was always willing to explain what confused her and help her fit in. After tragedy strikes, however, Devon is no longer there for Caitlin.

Mockingbird is a captivating, moving story about how Caitlin adapts to a world that always seems strange to her when her only guides are her grieving father, her well-meaning school counselor, and her own strong will to persevere. It's a story about seeking closure after tragedy, but more importantly it's a story about one girl's unique perspective of the world around her. I was so impressed with Erskine's ability to allow the reader to enter Caitlin's mind; I'm not expert on Autism Spectrum Disorder, but every aspect of Caitlin's Asperger's Syndrome seemed realistic and fully developed. How wonderful to explore Caitlin's perspective in a very genuine way.

I'd pair this book with Cynthia Lord's Rules, a story of a young girl who acts as explainer and protector for her younger brother with Autism Spectrum Disorder. I'd also suggest this book to readers who enjoy strong characters who see the world very differently.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Book #17: The Red Garden

I picked up Alice Hoffman's The Red Garden from the library for no other reason than I saw a blurb about it that made it sound interesting. Hoffman is a relatively well-known author who has written many books on a variety of topics; her newest, surely, was going to be of high caliber, too. Let me tell you, The Red Garden does anything but disappoint.

Although the book is a novel, the only truly consistent thing in the book is place: all of the action takes place in Blackwell, Massachusetts, from the town's founding in the 1700s to the present day. Each chapter gives a little glimpse of the town's history, letting the reader see moments that shaped Blackwell, its families, and its lore. Each chapter can stand very well on its own, yet when all of the stories are woven together into one novel the end result is something so, so beautiful.

Hoffman really lets her readers inhabit Blackwell; she allows its mysteries and secrets to permeate everything, and the reader can alternately delight in its wonders and mourn its tragedies. Several historical figures make subtle appearances, but the real gems are the men, women, and children who live their lives in Blackwell. It's great fun to think about the family trees in the book and, as time and tales progress, to think about who is related to whom.

What's truly remarkable about The Red Garden is the quiet, moving ordinariness that spans the novel. Each chapter feels full of characters who experience extraordinary things--a drowning, a murder, an accident that claims one's memory--and each of these stories could easily be expanded into its own book. But with so many extraordinary characters and stories making up the book, suddenly every story begins to feel un-extraordinary, average. We all experience extraordinary things, but Hoffman skillfully shows that such experiences are not what make us extraordinary beings.

I'd suggest this book for readers who enjoy short stories, stories where place is a major character, and quiet, thoughtful fiction.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Book #16: Sea Swept

Variety is the spice of life, right? Cue a book from a completely different genre, and make way for my first-ever Nora Roberts.

I picked up Sea Swept, the first title in Roberts's Chesapeake Bay Saga, at the recommendation of my voracious-reader friend, who is knowledgeable about the nuances within romance novels (among many other genres). She likes stories about brothers, and this series is just that--a series of tales about each of four adoptive brothers, the Quinns. This first book in the series focuses on the oldest brother, Cameron, as the three eldest brothers come together in their boyhood home once again to help raise their "new" youngest brother, ten-year-old Seth.

Of course there is sufficient romance and misunderstanding and reconciliation of lovers, too--it wouldn't be a romance novel without such plot devices, now would it? But I really did enjoy the Quinn brothers; I enjoyed reading about their family dynamic, how they relate to one another, and how, despite anything else, family is what is really most important to them. Not a bad premise for any book. I'd suggest this title for fans of contemporary romance, family sagas, and readers willing to suspend a bit more disbelief than usually required by fiction.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Book #15: The Cupcake Queen

When fourteen-year-old Penny moves with her mother from New York City to her mother's hometown of Hog's Hollow, Penny is convinced that this change can only be temporary. After all, her parents' arguing can't have been that big of a deal--right? But, wait, why is her mother opening a cupcakes-only bakery in town if they're planning on moving back to the city? All these new changes are awful; and they just couldn't be permanent. Or are they?

During her first few months in a new place, at a new school, and trying to make new friends, Penny of The Cupcake Queen definitely struggles to adjust to being in this podunk small town where she never wanted to be in the first place. Hog's Hollow definitely has its bad points--cliquey mean girls in particular--but it starts to show its bright points, too: real friends and the opportunity to really be oneself. Just when she thought she'd gotten entirely fed up with Hog's Hollow, Penny finds the town has grown on her--and the folks she befriends might need someone like her as much as she needs people like them.

I really enjoyed the premise of the different types of loss we all experience; I particularly liked the strong characters with even stronger personalities who really round out the story and make the reader feel emotionally involved. Hepler's style might not involve the most compelling dialogue or the most action-packed climax, but she definitely delivers in the department of characters you wouldn't mind meeting in real life. Sometimes, that's more than enough. Throw in the pretty much ubiquitous theme of art and there are much worse ways to spend an afternoon than reading this novel. I'd suggest it to readers who enjoy realistic fiction with an early high school setting and to those looking to think a bit about how change affects us all.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

New meal: Red Pepper Polenta

A few weeks ago I had polenta for the first time at one of my favorite Bloomington restaurants. When it came to be my turn to cook dinner for weekly roomie dinner night, I opted to try making it myself. I really enjoyed the creaminess of the polenta when I got it at the restaurant, so I looked and looked for recipes to try to figure out the best way to replicate that yumminess. Turns out not that many of my cookbooks or the food blogs I read talk much about polenta--and when they do, a lot of time it's a polenta cake or fried polenta. Not what I was going for, at least not for my first try.

So what's a girl to do? Follow the instructions on the package, of course! My grocery store has the logs of polenta available in the refrigerated part of the produce section, and they have the uncooked corn meal in the specialty flours, &tc. section. I opted for the uncooked stuff just to try my hand at the whole process. When I set about making the recipe on Monday, I followed the recipe on the back of the Bob's Red Mill package with a few additions: 1) instead of just sprinkling grated cheese on top of the polenta when it was finished, I mixed about 3/4 c grated asiago into the polenta just as I took it off the heat so that it would melt throughout; and 2) I put some roasted red peppers and a bit of olive oil in the food processor to make a thin sauce, and I stirred that into the polenta as well for a bit of sweetness. Turns out these were tasty additions.

The polenta was yummy that first night, when I served it with pork tenderloin and broccoli. I had a lot leftover, however, so I followed the roomie's lead and fried a bit up in a pan. Just a drizzle of olive oil was enough to get the surfaces of a 1/2-inch thin slice of the polenta starting to brown while the inside turned to gooey goodness. Turns out polenta is quite a versatile dish!