Book Theme Update

Life is full of surprises. I was so excited about the October reading theme, Life, and had a nice stack of books waiting for me—two stacks, actually, one fiction and one nonfiction. (There’s also a poetry stack, but that’s in a different room.) There were many titles that I was quite excited about.

But when it came time to choose a new fiction book in early October, none of the titles in the stack appealed to me. I ended up reading only one fiction book for the theme, and that was a graphic novel, Get a Life, by Dupuy & Berberian. Instead I read a novel about books (The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, which I recommend) and a YA novel (Akata Witch, which I also recommend).

I read four poetry books, but none of them stood out, so I’ll just move on.

Nonfiction has been the standout in October. I’ve already written about Birds Art Life, by Kyo Maclear (see Life After Animals). The other theme book I read was Life Without a Recipe, by Diana Abu-Jaber (also discussed in Life After Animals), which I loved. Life Without a Recipe is a very food and family-oriented memoir, including recipes (both Jordanian and German).

November’s reading theme is Health. I do not have a large stack of books for this coming month, but that’s okay. I have one book I’m really looking forward to: Slow Medicine: The Way to Healing, by Victoria Sweet. Sweet is a physician and also has a Ph.D. in history. Still, this book looks compulsively readable. She considers medicine a craft, a science, and an art, and I can’t wait to read more. The Introduction is titled, “Medicine Without a Soul.” Does that feel familiar to you?

Since the pickings are a mite slim for the theme, I’m casting a wide net and realize that several of the books from the Life theme are defendable contenders. To wit: The End of Your Life Book-Club, by Will Schwalbe (a memoir of a book club between a son and his mother who is dying of cancer); Coming Alive, by Taylor Brorby; and Life Is a Miracle, by Wendell Berry. Is that too much of a stretch?

I have to come right out and admit: There is not a lot of health on my fiction bookshelves. Here is what I found: The Diagnosis, by Alan Lightman; Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri; The Wasties, by Frederick Reuss; and A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest J. Gaines (the latter may be a stretch, but there are no book theme police, so it’s in the pile).

My nonfiction shelves were moderately healthier. I found For the Health of the Land, by Aldo Leopold (his book, A Sand County Almanac, is one of my all-time favorite books—it changed the way I look at nature, and possibly life); Wounds of Passion, by bell hooks; My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor; Ill Fares the Land, by Tony Judt; and The Hidden Wound, by Wendell Berry.

Poetry nearly always has good theme titles, and this month is no exception:

  • Talking Cures, by Richard Howard
  • Tourniquet, by Roy Jacobstein
  • The Manageable Cold, by Timothy McBride
  • Echolalia, by Deborah Bernhardt
  • You Won’t Remember This, by Michael Dennis Browne
  • Swoon, by Victoria Redel
  • Breath, by Robert VanderMolen
  • Bodily Course, by Deborah Gorlin

I wish you a happy Halloween, and a healthy November filled with fun books.

Cooking with Beans

beansI have been obsessed by beans of late. Black beans, pinto beans, lentils (not technically beans, but beanish); canned and dried (trying to move from more canned to more dried). The bean, at least for me these last few weeks, seems to be the thing.

It started with the heat of summer, when I thought a lentil-orange salad would be just the thing. I cooked the lentils with the orange zest (and a bit of the juice) but they never made it to the salad stage because the lentils on their own were too good to resist. (Lentils are easy to cook—1 cup lentils, 2 cups water, and a bit of salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer, and cook, covered, for 15-35 minutes, depending on the kind of lentil. Red are fast, in the 15-minute range, but I find my older green lentils take a bit more than 30 minutes.)

Then I was on to refried beans (these from canned pinto beans). I’m trying to find the best mix of spices. Lately I’ve been experimenting with cumin and coriander. I have discovered I have a huge fondness for cumin. The refried beans were very good on their own, but also leftover on tortillas with melted cheese. Also heated (again with cheese) for a good dip with tortilla chips.

crockpotBut I really want to get the dried bean thing down. I tried awhile ago and was daunted (read total failure). But a friend in Denver convinced me to try beans in a crockpot (pretty much the only way she makes them, she says). And so I did. And they are excellent! (I’m especially pleased to have finally used the crockpot, which I bought several years ago but have never used because I had not yet found it essential.)

Here is the thing, according to my friend Jami: You put the (rinsed and picked over) beans in the crockpot. Then you cover them well in boiling water. Boiling water, yes. This somehow precludes the need for soaking. I used 6+ cups of boiling water to 2 cups of black beans. Jami’s recipe (for any kind of dried bean pretty much) also includes a medium chopped onion, a few minced garlic cloves, a shredded carrot or two, and a stalk of celery rather finely diced (I used two because I really like celery). For black beans add cumin and coriander. Cook on high for about 6 hours (do check for tenderness, though—the age of the bean also makes a difference). Once they are getting tender but are not quite done, add salt and the juice of half a lemon. The lemon is optional but adds a nice sense of completeness to the beans. The salt is not optional. Beans do need a bit of salt, but at the end.

These beans were good on their own, and I used some of the leftovers on tortilla chips with shredded cheese on top, which was excellent and has given me ideas about further adventures with lettuce and sour cream.

kbeansI have finally conquered the dry bean. Thank you Jami! I want to try the black beans again, because I need to add much more cumin and coriander than I did. And I might want to add a bit of ginger root. But then I also want to try pinto beans. And kidney beans. Small red beans. So many beans….and I am lucky enough to have the time.

Baby Birds, Butterflies, and DIY Bug Spray

gray_catbird_3I took a break while mowing this morning to pick up some sticks in the backyard. I went to throw them on the brush pile, and a small fluttering something on the ground caught my eye. A baby bird! At first I thought it might be a thrush, but then I saw its tail and I wondered if it might be a baby catbird. As if to confirm my suspicion, an adult catbird landed on a lilac branch about two feet away from me. With my attention diverted, the baby scurried away.

I scurried away too. I got a glass of iced tea and sat in the breeze to enjoy the backyard—mess that it is—for awhile. While I sat there the adult baltimore_oriole_6catbird returned, hanging around the smaller birdbath that it seems to favor. I saw a little movement back behind the lilacs, but didn’t espy the baby catbird again. I did see a female Baltimore Oriole, perhaps come to feed on the red-twig dogwood berries.

When I did resume mowing, I gave all areas near the dogwoods and lilacs a fairly wide birth. I didn’t want to take any chances; I like having catbirds in my backyard. They first showed up a few years ago, and each summer since, I’ve seen them more often. This summer I have seen them almost daily, both in the front yard in the ornamental lilac tree, as well as the back at the birdbath, on the fence, the high wires, and in the dogwoods. And the calls! Even when I can’t see them I often hear them. But this is the first year I’ve known they are nesting so close. I am exceptionally pleased to be hosting a catbird family!

The catbird wasn’t the first young bird that I’ve seen in the yard this year. A few days ago there was a fledging blue jay (with attendant parents) in the crabapple tree (mostly). Holy cow were they loud! Earlier a flock had (slowly) passed through—screaming and calling and laughing. I couldn’t tell if there were 20 or 50. A lot if them, though, prancing around among the leaves and branches near the tops of the trees. I couldn’t read. I could only watch them.

A couple of weeks ago I saw a fledging cardinal, also in the crabapple tree, also with both parents. (If you see cardinals and you wonder, you can tell the youngsters by their black beaks. The adults have bright orange bills.) If ever I have thought of chopping down the crabapple tree (and I have, because the squirrels use it as freeway central to my roof), I am loathe to do so after these fine, mesmerizing moments.

On another matter, while mowing the front this morning, some kind of nasty bugs kept landing on me and biting, hard! Always where I couldn’t see them. I finally ran into the house and grabbed my homemade bug spray (I had only tried it once before) and sprayed me, my clothes, and my cap. I had no more trouble with bugs. Maybe these particular nasty bugs just went away, or maybe it was the spray. I will continue testing. If you want to test for yourself, the recipe is below. It takes a couple of weeks for the herbs to infuse, but it’s still July, and at least in Minnesota, that leaves at least two months of biting bugs.

DIY Bug Spray

Take one large handful lemon balm, and a large pinch each of basil, thyme, and catnip. Chop fine (or tear up the leaves by hand—this is my preference), put in a jar, and cover (plus 2 inches) with witch hazel. (Witch hazel can be found in most grocery stores, co-ops, and pharmacies.) Put in a cool dark place (or at least a dark place—I use the linen closet) for two weeks, shaking daily. 

To use, strain the herbs using a fine mesh strainer (or cheesecloth). Then add enough water to the herbed witch hazel so the volume increases by half (e.g., if you have 2/3 cups witch hazel, add 1/3 cup water; if you have 1 cup witch hazel, add 1/2 cup water). Now add a few drops of essential oils: citronella, basil, lemongrass, thyme, peppermint, eucalyptus, clove. I didn’t have many of these, and added only citronella, lemongrass, and peppermint. It seems to be working. Play around with the oils, depending on what you have and your preferences.

Store in a glass bottle and spritz away!

great-spangled-fritillaryAs for the butterfly, that was a gift while I was sitting and drinking iced tea, waiting for the baby catbird to escape deep into the dogwoods. (Doesn’t it sound like I have a huge yard? It’s a tiny city lot.) It rather zipped through the backyard (the butterfly, not the baby catbird), not the dallying kind of butterfly I’m used to with my monarchs. Something in me said fritillary. And after looking in my books and talking to my butterfly friend, I’m pretty sure it was a great spangled fritillary.

Really, life doesn’t get much better than this.

My Month of Meats

I have been obsessed with cooking lately. Cooking in general and meats in particular. I’m really good with a pound of hamburger and have at least two decent chicken recipes under my belt (chicken adobo and oven-fried chicken), but the larger red meats have always intimidated me.

dutch ovenAnd then I’m reading Michael Pollan’s book Cooked, the “water” chapter, which is all about braising meat: Cooking meat (usually in the oven, covered) for a long time at a low temperature in a small (or large—depending on your reference) amount of liquid. This is the kind of task that a Dutch oven was made for. It sounded so easy that I got a beef brisket and did it.

FlinnI also got a lot of additional recipes from friends, research online, and reading cookbooks. I have immersed myself in the world of meat. I ended up doing a mix of recipes (as per usual) based on what sounded good and what I had in the house. (But I will say the two books I have been consulting most consistently are Kathleen Flinn’s The Kitchen Counter Cooking School, and Alice Waters’s The Art of Simple Food. Both have chapters devoted to braising. The Flinn book has a Basic Braise recipe that I will probably find useful forever. The Waters book has a bit more detail on method and timing.)

The brisket was quite good. I braised it in dark beer which worked pretty well but next time I might use something lighter. Something with a little more snap. And I put the vegetables in too early so they got overdone. The potatoes and carrots weren’t too bad, but the turnips were mush. Lesson learned!

Today I am braising a Boston butt. I had never heard of a Boston butt until a few days ago. It’s a meat from the upper shoulder of a hog. My first pork cooking project. I’m braising it in a mixture of orange juice and soy sauce, with minced ginger and garlic. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

pearMy other recent cooking adventure was pear sauce. I found a really good deal on Anjou pears and a friend suggested pear sauce. I’d never heard of it. Just like apple sauce, he said. So I check online for a few recipes (this can take hours, you know, when you get sucked into the online cooking vortex) and it does indeed look as easy as applesauce. Wash and core the pears, cut them up in smallish pieces, add a bit of water and a couple of cinnamon sticks and you’re on your way.

One thing I learned: Add very little water. The pears I got were very juicy, and the sauce was so liquidy I started spooning out the water. In the end, I removed more liquid than I had originally added—that’s how juicy pears can be. The liquid did not go to waste—my spouse loved it! Which made me think of perhaps adding a lot More water next time and making pear juice. Or perhaps I could make both at the same time. I need to think about that; it feels a little too much like having my cake and eating it too.

egg beaterA final thing with the pears: Unlike apples, they did not mash so well with the potato masher. It was like the pears wouldn’t actually combine with the liquid. I tried a whisk and that worked better. Then I tried my little hand-crank eggbeater, and that did the trick.

I’m off to attend the Boston butt. I hope to report good things….

Easy Chicken Adobo

adoboLast night I made chicken adobo for the first time. It was great, and easy peasy to make. In fact, it’s so easy to make, I made it (or at least prepared it) while I was also making applesauce. (Note: This is not recommended unless you are a very focused cook. More than once onion, garlic, and ginger almost went into the applesauce.)

Here’s what you need (and the amounts I used):

4 chicken drumsticks (1.5 lbs.)
1/2 cup rice vinegar
1/2 cup soy sauce
1 medium-small onion, sliced
3 large cloves garlic (crushed/chopped)
black peppercorns (I used 13)
2 bay leaves
2 tbsp thinly sliced ginger (with skins on—hurrah!)

Put the chicken in a roomy pot or dutch oven. In a bowl mix together all the other ingredients. Pour the mixture over the chicken and marinate (covered) for 1-3 hours (in the fridge). Note: Thighs are more traditional, but I had drumsticks. Also note: I used a hunk of ginger root about the size of two of my thumbs (which are average size). I did not actually measure the sliced ginger, but it seemed like about two tablespoons. Further note: White vinegar will also work.

Heat on stovetop over high heat until it comes to a boil. Lower heat, cover and simmer for an hour or so, stirring and turning chicken over occasionally. This is usually served over rice, but I served it over orzo (which worked very well and also made for good leftovers today).

I reviewed several recipes before I came up with this one (which is a combination of at least three plus my own preferences). Cooking times varied from about half an hour to an hour and a half. One said this is a very forgiving recipe, and can hardly be overcooked. That was comforting (most particularly when I started over after cooking for 20 minutes when I decided my pot was too small).

Use a decent-sized pot. One of the recipes I consulted suggested using a small pot, which I did. Big mistake. It was very hard to move the chicken around in such tight quarters—things kept falling out, and the chicken on top didn’t appear to be cooking at all. So after about 25 minutes I switched to a larger pot and started over. It was much easier.

A couple of other things I learned while cooking: Most of the recipes I consulted required less liquid than I used. In fact, the amount above was recommended for 4-5 pounds of chicken in one recipe. This is something you can play around with according to your preferences.

Next time I will grate the ginger instead of slicing it. My slices were not thin enough and every once in awhile I’d run across a massive piece of ginger. I love ginger, but I still think grated would work better to distribute it more evenly. Also, a larger onion. And perhaps just a tad more garlic. Oh, and next time I will at least double the amount of chicken. There weren’t nearly enough leftovers!

Apples and Books

HaralsonA couple of social days in a row have worn this introvert out, even though both of my friends are introverts.

Wednesday I went with my friend Nancy on an apple orchard outing. We visited four of them! I’ve been on an applesauce kick, so I stocked up: half a peck each of Haralsons and SnowSweets, a full peck of a mix of Haralsons, Honeycrisp, and SweeTango; and two Honeygolds (that taste very much like pears, which I thought would make a very interesting applesauce).

Applesauce is easy peasy to make. Take your apples, core them, cut in chunks (I usually do quarters, then halve the quarters, and then cut crosswise). I leave the skins on because I like the added crunch (and the good stuff in the skin), but I make the pieces smaller than most applesauceapplesauce recipes because that seems to work better with the skins. Put in a large saucepan, add about 1/3 cup water per four large apples, bring to a boil over high heat, turn down to low, stir every five minutes or so, and add more water if the water totally disappears at the bottom or it seems to be getting too thick for your taste. When the apples are soft, it is done (usually 10-30 minutes, depending on how many apples). I use a potato masher because I prefer a lumpy applesauce, and I try to remember to add cinnamon before I put it in the jars.

CookedAfter the apple orchards we stopped for a beer and more talking and catching up. When we got around to books, Nancy asked if I had any interest in reading Michael Pollan’s book, Cooked, together. Oh yes! We did this a few years ago with Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, read a chapter a week and discussed it throughly, often page by page. We are not as geographically close now and weekly is probably not practical, but we will still read the book in chunks and meet as we progress. It is a very fun—and deep—way to read a book.

Then on Thursday I got together with Sheila and among other things, we finalized our monthly book themes for next year. There are no rules around this, except that you read at least one book related to the theme each month. Usually most of my reading relates to the theme (particularly poetry—I find the this approach a great way to find some of the poetry books that have been waiting for years to be read). I tend to want the theme reflected in the title of the book, while Sheila is more interested in its reflecting the content of the book. I’m afraid this says something really shallow about me, but sometimes I can be rigid, and I like being rigid in this particular way. Here are the themes we’ve chosen for 2015:

  • January—Year
  • February—Love
  • March—Number
  • April—Spiritual
  • May—Color
  • June—Award Winners (repeat from 2014)
  • July—Roads & highways
  • August—Time (repeat from 2014)
  • September—Academic/education
  • October—Scary/haunted
  • November—Food
  • December—Literary Characters

One of the best things about the reading theme is that I pull books off the shelf that I bought years ago. Books I bought with good intention and then never got around to; new things came in, and now they’ve been languishing, sometimes for decades (one, Sara Crewe by Frances Hodgson Burnett, for 40 years!). The monthly reading theme levels the playing field in a way; the new books no longer rule the roost.

For someone who has tended to buy more books than they read, it’s a refreshing change of pace.