Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Food Tuesday: On Roasted Potatoes

I haven't made anything spectacular for #foodtuesday this week. After getting rather preoccupied with a really wonderful book over the weekend, I put off going grocery shopping and thus haven't got much in my fridge or cupboard. What I did have, though, was potatoes.

When it comes down to it, I don't really eat potatoes all that often. A whole baked potato ends up being too much for the meals I make myself, and most real-recipe potato dishes make enough to feed at least four. As I am but one, potatoes aren't always practical.

This week, however, I decided to try roasting my potatoes on my new stoneware baking sheet. I cut my fingerling potatoes in half, spread them on the baking sheet, drizzled some olive oil over the top, and sprinkled some sea salt over it all. After merely 20, 25 minutes in a hot oven, the potatoes were starting to blister on the tops and crackle on the bottoms against the heat of the pan. After they had cooled just enough to be no longer dangerous, I started popping them into my mouth. And then I couldn't stop.

Something so simple: potatoes, olive oil, sea salt, heat, and time. Together they create something so comforting and warm, with so much flavor and texture it seems almost like alchemy. And that's why I decided just to talk about potatoes today.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Book Update: Where Things Come Back

I'm not particularly good at writing praise for books I love; I find it much easier to enumerate the things I dislike about a book I read (ahem). I can talk about the positive qualities of mediocre books, using specific examples and tie-ins to other books, till the cows come home, yet when I really love a book, I find it difficult to express anything more substantial than "this book is magnificent, and you should read it, too."

But I am going to try my hand at true praise, because John Corey Whaley's Where Things Come Back deserves it. I mentioned this award-winning young adult novel this past week as one of my #fridayreads, but I hadn't yet finished the book at that point. I want to give the entire book its due. So here it goes.

According to the author, "Where Things Come Back is a novel about second chances." A two-foot tall woodpecker, thought extinct, has a second chance at existence when it is supposedly sighted near the small Arkansas town of Lily; a seventeen-year-old boy whose brother has gone missing gets a second chance to consider that town--the place where he's grown up--and the negative feelings he has for it and for the people who seem stuck there; a college philosophy major takes on his former roommate's second chance at faith. These are just three of the many second chances in the novel, all of which are woven together into an exquisite and intricately-crafted story that feels ultimately about hope and the wonderful blessing that is feeling content in one's life.

I mentioned when I wrote about this novel on Friday that I didn't know where the book was going--in a good way, I did not know what was going to happen to these characters I suddenly found myself in love with. That not knowing compelled me to keep reading, to keep traveling along the yarn of the stories that are told in such plain and beautiful language. Within the last 60 or so pages, I found myself becoming aware of the nuances of these characters whom I thought I knew. Some of these nuances are heartbreaking, some of them are frightening, but all are revelations--that we as people have more depth to us than even we sometimes realize, and that we are more capable of being simultaneously good and bad than day to day life might suggest.

I could not stop reading for the last few chapters, and my own emotions became so tied into those of the characters (what a talented writer who can make one feel such strong empathy for everyone he has created!). As their worries grew, so did mine; as their feelings of helplessness overwhelmed them, so did mine; as their hope quietly persisted, so did mine; all in tandem until on the final page, when one of life's gracious semi-resolutions occurs, I could not help but burst into tears from relief and from the utter beauty of this tale.

In the end, nothing is neatly solved, nothing is concretely resolved. Who are these people? What do they feel? What ultimately motivates them, where are they going? One does not receive the answers to these questions, just as one does not know their answers even when the questions pertain to oneself. The comforts of knowing small, ephemeral things amidst a life of unknowing is a pervasive truth of Whaley's novel, and it reassures just as it overturns everything you thought you knew about a person's capacity to hope.

Beautiful language. Characters of depth deserving the empathy of the reader. Remarkable storytelling. And so much to talk about and ruminate on. These are the gifts of only the best writers, and John Corey Whaley's Where Things Come Back is most certainly such a gift.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Friday Reads: 2012 Award Winners

On Monday morning, the American Library Association announced the 2012 recipients of their diverse Youth Media Awards. Among the most well-known awards are the Newbery Medal, awarded yearly for the best fiction book for children, and the Printz Award, an annual award for excellence in young adult literature. Within moments of both awards being announced, I had placed my holds on the winners with the intent to pick them up at work. These great books are what I've been reading this week.

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos, an extraordinary and hilarious children's fiction writer, is a refreshingly funny story with a relatable male protagonist--a set up that doesn't always happen with Newbery Winners. Young Jack has just begun his summer vacation, but he has already managed to find himself grounded for the entirety of his time off of school. The only respite from his house arrest is the home of an elderly neighbor, Miss Volker. Miss Volker is the town's medical examiner, appointed by Eleanor Roosevelt herself, and her arthritis necessitates that she have Jack help her write the obituaries for the residents of Norvelt who die. It seems a lot of old ladies are dying this particular summer--is something amiss? Jack has this and other strange, small-town oddities to keep his nosebleed-prone self occupied, and amidst all of the hilarity--melting hands, for example--he just might mature a bit.

I'm only about halfway through Where Things Come Back, written by new author John Corey Whaley, but the young adult novel already has the makings of a impactful classic. The book has storylines following two sets of characters (at least, that's the case so far), and already these incredibly relatable characters--again male--are dealing with a sibling's disappearance, sightings of a woodpecker though extinct, and apocryphal spirituality. I really have no idea where this book is going, and I love that unknown. The plot isn't sensational or quick-paced--it feels like a conversation with these characters, like I really have been given the opportunity to get to know them. I've excited to finish the novel these weekend and fully see what earned it such prestigious awards.

Also read this week: The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens is the first book in the intended trilogy of The Books of Beginning, a fantasy series following three siblings as they learn the truth behind their parents' mysterious disappearance ten years ago. In this first book, the siblings learn that magic is real and that the oldest among them, Kate, can move through time, but they also discover that someone sinister lurks in the background wanting to harness the powers of the three Books of Beginning. The forthcoming second and third books in the trilogy are expected to focus on the brother and younger sister respectively, as each sibling identifies with a particular book and its powers. A fun read, and I'm told it's an even more fun audiobook listen.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Food Tuesday: Enchilada Lasagna

Back in Bloomington, my roommate made a delicious enchilada casserole for one of our weekly dinners. The recipe is a staple of hers, and after she shared it with me, I learned that it is in fact called "enchilada lasagna." It's got these tortilla layers, see, kinda like a traditional lasagna has pasta layers? Get it?

I opened up the recipe file this weekend, and although her version calls for making your own red enchilada sauce (chicken stock, tomato sauce, herbs, spices...), I opted to give it a go the first time around using a store-bought enchilada sauce. The result, the time-conscious side of me is happy to report, was very tasty. While I'm sure the totally-from-scratch version is that much better, the enchilada lasagna I made was absolutely nothing to complain about.

Enchilada Lasagna, my way
1. Heat a bit of vegetable oil in a skillet over the stove. Cube some raw chicken--as close to bite-size pieces as you care to get--and toss it into the pan. (I used two good-sized boneless, skinless chicken breasts.) Let the chicken pieces brown and cook through, then remove them to a bowl.
2. Add sliced onion--again, cut to your size preferences--to the skillet and, turning down the heat, allow the onion to sweat for 5+ minutes. Add some minced garlic towards the end, and stir it all together while it sautes for about a minute more before removing the pan from the heat. Go ahead and add the chicken back to the dish to consolidate things.
3. Pour a bit of enchilada sauce in the bottom of a casserole dish--just enough to preclude any sticking post-baking. Layer corn tortillas first so that the bottom of the dish is fairly well covered. Pour a bit more enchilada sauce on top, then spread half the chicken and onion mixture on top of that. Sprinkle about 3/4- to 1 cup cheese (Mexican blend preshredded, queso fresco you shredded yourself... whatever you choose) on top of the chicken and onion mixture.
4. Add another layer of corn tortillas, then pour a bit more enchilada sauce. Spread the rest of the chicken and onion mixture on top, then add a final layer of tortillas. Pour the rest of the enchilada sauce on top before sprinkling another good handful of cheese on top of it all.
5. Cover the casserole dish loosely with aluminum foil, then bake it for about 30 minutes in a 350-degree-Fahrenheit oven. When that buzzer goes off, remove the foil and bake uncovered for another 10 minutes or until the cheese is melted and the enchilada lasagna is bubbly. Let it set for a few minutes before serving.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Last Week at the Library: A Visit from Max

On Wednesday night, Max from Rosemary Wells's well-loved Max and Ruby books stopped by my library!

I tacked Max's visit onto one of my newer programs, a monthly Evening Family Story Time. I planned a few books to share with the audience, and then I had Max coloring sheets and color-able bookmarks set out for kids to work on while they waited their turns to meet Max. I expected a good crowd to show up, but I was blown away by the 147 people--kids and their adults--who crammed into my program room for the event. The kids got to giggling at Max's antics in the book Max Cleans Up, and it was great to have an audience that large really engaged in a story.

The highlight of the event, though, was definitely when Max walked into the room and sat down to meet the kids. Suffice it to say that there were bunny high-fives and bunny hugs in great numbers. Meet Max was definitely a successful program, and it'll be a while before any Max and Ruby books are lingering on my picture book shelves again.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Food Tuesday: Balsamic Chicken and Green Beans

I've had a taste for good balsamic vinegar lately, and this week's #foodtuesday recipe has definitely helped satisfy it. For dinner I made two recipes from the January/February issue of Cooking Light: balsamic chicken with a side of balsamic green beans. I served roast sweet potato on the side, which contributed to a final plate that was colorful, a bit tangy, and delicious.

The most difficult aspect of the balsamic chicken recipe is that the chicken needs to marinate for an hour before you do the actual cooking. I had to plan my timing pretty precisely so that I didn't accidentally end up eating at 8 o'clock. Other than needing a bit more time in the oven than the recipe recommends, the chicken really just consisted of following the simple instructions.

The balsamic green beans were in the magazine as a side for a beef dish, but since I was serving them with chicken I substituted the beef broth called for in the recipe with chicken broth. The soft sweetness of the onions with the tang of the balsamic vinegar and the light crunch of the green beans made for a good combination of flavors and textures; an understated side to the chicken entree.

Another tasty meal, and I hope the leftovers will be just as successful.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Friday Reads: The Penderwicks!

This week I've been spending time with a really spectacular family: the Penderwicks! The Penderwicks inhabit three novels by Jeanne Birdsall, and they make for really fun, charming reading aimed at school-age children. The lady heroines are four sisters: Rosalind, the oldest and most responsible Penderwick; Skye, the tomboy/scientist/explorer; Jane, the imaginative writer; and Batty, the youngest and most whimsical sister. The four sisters work so well as a pack--they even have periodic MOPS sessions, or Meetings Of Penderwick Sisters--but they all have endearing voices and personalities of their own. Their well-characterized uniqueness turns their relatively average day-to-day life into a joyful adventure from start to finish.

Birdsall won the National Book Award for her first novel in the series, The Penderwicks. From there she has added to the lives of the Penderwick sisters in a Louisa May Alcott way, and the end result is an absolutely sunny series of books. I hope there will be more titles to come, but for now there are just the three:

The Penderwicks - The Penderwick sisters, their father, and their dog named Hound head to their summer vacation at an estate called Arundel. While there, the girls make new friends, have daring and dangerous adventures, and get into a pretty good amount of trouble for young girls.

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street - The Penderwick sisters are back home the autumn after their Arundel vacation, and suddenly their normal school lives feel turned upside down. Their father, under some duress, goes on a few dates, causing the girls to fear for their futures and plot to save the Penderwick unite. Meanwhile, new neighbors make for a bright spot in a season in upheaval.

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette - It's summer vacation again, but this time the Penderwicks are separated. Daddy is one place, Rosalind is spending her vacation with a friend, and the remaining three Penderwicks go with their aunt to Maine. The new relationship dynamics of a three-sister clan cause some amount of chaos, but the girls all develop their distinct personalities along the way.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Food Tuesday: Jambalaya

This week I was able to make one of the recipes I had saved to my desktop, thus making for a bit less clutter when I work at my computer: Jambalaya! I first ate jambalaya when I was in New Orleans for ALA Annual last June, and mmm was it tasty. Some time since then, my very excellent mother discovered, tried, and tweaked Ellie Krieger's Jambalaya with Shrimp and Ham into a new staple at her house. When I tasted it while home around Thanksgiving, I knew I would have to give it a go on my own.

I did my own bit of tweaking of the original recipe, namely using chicken breast and smoked turkey sausage in lieu or ham and shrimp. I cut the chicken breast into pieces and cooked it in a bit of olive oil in a frying pan while the rice was cooking in the dutch oven, and then for the last few minutes I added the sliced sausage just enough for it to heat through and begin getting some color. Just before serving, I stirred the meats into the deliciously spicy and savoury rice mixture. Absolutely delicious, and the leftovers potential looks to be quite favorable. Food Tuesday #2 of 2012: success!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Last Week at the Library: Pizza!

This past week, I met with one of my regular moms groups that brings in their young children (about 1-4 years old) for a story time. In these special story times, it can sometimes be a struggle to keep kids engaged for longer than five minutes, especially because of the relatively wide age range. I've found that simple--seemingly too simple, sometimes--programming is what does the trick. Pick a theme with which the children will have at least a basic familiarity, find two or three stories (on the shorter side!) to read, and mix things up with a rhyme/fingerplay and a participation activity. Last week I went with that yummy topic that is familiar to pretty much any American household: pizza!

I read two great, young child-friendly books during the story time: Monica Wellington's Pizza at Sally's and Virginia Walter's Hi, Pizza Man! Wellington's book gives a good nonfiction-style introduction to how pizza is made, while Walter's book is a bit goofy and invites audience response (what would you say if a kitty showed up at your door to deliver your pizza? "Meow meow, Pizza Kitty!" of course!). I separated the two stories with a rhyming fingerplay in which we used our imaginations to make pizzas, and I ended with a color matching game to reinforce color knowledge. Then to the craft: a simple piece of white card stock on which there was an empty slice of pizza, ready for the kids to color or paste their favorite pizza toppings. So simple, using no special supplies, and they loved it! And of course, we ended with the bubble machine--I shall never again underestimate the power of a bubble machine to thrill preschoolers.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Friday Reads: The House of the Spirits

I'm joining a book club next week! As a result, my first #fridayreads of 2012 is Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits, a novel about a few generations of the del Valle and Trueba families in Latin America during the 20th century. This is a dense book, folks; there is so much rich description and detail that it is taking me a while to read it. What I have read so far, however, is definitely rich fodder for book discussion: a mermaid-like girl, a strict Catholicism amidst new socialist values, a bit of psychic premonition, and a cycle of pain and misfortune that seems to circle Esteban Trueba and his family. I'm interested to hear the discussions next week.

Also read this week: Why We Broke Up, written by Daniel Handler and illustrated by Maira Kalman. In the first few chapters, I was annoyed with how self-absorbed the narrator, Min, is while she's listing the reasons she and her ex Ed broke up. She goes through their relationship and the reasons for its demise with the help of small objects she kept throughout their time together--these make up Kalman's illustrations, which are her signature brand of brightly-colored, more-than-everyday portrayals of everyday things. As the novel went on, however, I really got to enjoying the novel despite never really finding Min or Ed very sympathetic. To me, they were just two teenagers who were too self-involved--of course they were going to break up! But maybe that's the point, this is just a close-up look at an everyday breakup, brightly-colored so that for the duration of the novel it's a bit more than just everyday.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Food Tuesday: Chinese Leftovers

What a better way to start off a year of Food Tuesdays than with leftovers---from 2011! I could try to make some sort of excuse for why today's entree isn't particularly stunning, but the reality is that I end up making this once or twice a month, so I'm not apologizing for it. It's good, it's resourceful, and it involves lots of veggies. So there.

There aren't very many lunchtime food options around my library. In fact, I can think of one place within a 30-minute-lunch-break driving distance, and three places that deliver. Of those delivery restaurants, the Chinese place is where my fellow staffers and I order from most. On occasional Fridays someone will suggest ordering Chinese food for lunch. Pretty soon three, four, five of us have opted in, writing our orders on a piece of scrap paper. I always get the same thing: L11, the lunch-size portion of beef and broccoli, with steamed rice and an egg roll.

The lunch-size portion is still pretty huge, so after eating the egg roll I only eat about half of the main bowl--except I'll eat all of the vegetables, leaving just half of the rice and beef. Voila, leftovers! When I get around to making the leftovers for my dinner some evening, I have two pans on the stove: one to reheat the rice and beef, drizzled with a bit of sesame oil and low sodium soy sauce; and one to steam more fresh veggies. I mix them up at the end to unify the whole dish. The end result is a tasty, partially-fried rice-based beef and broccoli chock full of veggies--often even more veggies than were in the original, since I can buy and add whatever I like. Filling, pretty healthful, and not a bit wasteful.

I know doctored-up leftover Chinese food isn't the most glamorous of dishes, but it's a realistic one that I can guarantee you I'll be eating at least a handful of times in the coming year. And I look forward to it.

Sunday, January 1, 2012


While some friends and I were reflecting on our 2011 resolutions at last night's new year's party, I was pleased to confirm that I did in fact meet my three resolutions (two of which I blogged about) for last year: I read at least a book a week; I cooked for myself a lot more, including many new recipes; and I developed a taste--very limited, not very refined, mind you--for beer.

Now for my 2012 resolutions, in particular as they pertain to this blog:

1) To blog about my reading on Fridays (a.k.a. #fridayreads) -- this resolution is, effectively, another book-a-week resolution, as blogging about the same book Friday after Friday would be boring
2) To blog about cooking on Tuesdays (a.k.a. #foodtuesday), with a particular emphasis on trying new recipes
3) To blog about my library programming (on Sundays? we'll see), with the dual goal of sharing my successes and helping to develop my professional voice that will one day contribute to the library literature

I invite everyone to consider joining me in one of the above resolutions. If you like to read, blog/tweet #fridayreads. If you like to cook or want to cook more, share a recipe on #foodtuesday. And if you ever have a good idea for library programming, well, I want to know about it regardless of what day it is. I hope we'll develop a fun little community of reading and cooking interested folks this year!

I am also going to try to make an effort to log less screen time when I am at home. Since I'm in front of/around computers all day long at work, I want to focus on being more engaged with non-screen things in my off hours. My rationale is that having specific days for blogging about specific things will help this endeavor--I'll know when I'm going to be online, and then I won't be wasting time on random websites when I'm aimlessly on the web. Let's see what fun new things I can discover in my life when I'm not so tied to technology.

Happy new year, everyone!