What’s Cooking? – “The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook”

Yea!  I was waiting and waiting for Deb Perelman at Smitten Kitchen to write a cookbook.  I have been following Deb’s blog since I discovered the chocolate peanut butter cake recipe that made my in-laws accept me a birthday parties.  Deb is my go-to person for homemade marshmallows (one you have a homemade marshmallow you will NEVER have one from a bag again!).  But enough about why I love her blog, here is why I love her new cookbook.

Deb provides one of the most helpful notes and tips sections I’ve found in a cookbook.  For example, what to do if you don’t have buttermilk in the fridge or how to make brown sugar if you run out.  I mean really, I never have buttermilk but I always want buttermilk pancakes and biscuits.  This in itself is worth buying the book! 

True to the recipes on her blog, the recipes in the cookbook are straight forward and delicious.  I did my usual recipe sampler so here it goes:

Breakfast:  Gingerbread Spice Dutch Baby – I’ve never had a dutch baby pancake, I’ve barely ever heard of them.  It is a light, cripsy pancake that you make in the blender and oven.  I might never go back to regular pancakes and the mess again.  All you do is whiz them up in the blender, pour into a pan (that can go into the oven), pop them in the oven and bake.  What this means is that you can make them on a busy school morning, they are so simple.  The gingerbread spices make the kitchen smell wonderful too!  I also made the Apricot Breakfast Crisp – if you love cobbler, this is going to be your new breakfast go-to.  Baked fruit (I made it with peaches) with a crumbly topping is served with yogurt and delivered to the table in about 30 minutes.  This is absolutely wonderful and it is even better cold so you can whip it up at night and have it for breakfast.

Salads:  Roasted Baby Roots with Sherry-Shallot Vinaigrette – This is a complete salad but can also be served as a side if you would like a heartier meal.  You can roast any root vegetable that you like and once they are cooked you toss them with a vinaigrette, some quinoa and goat cheese.  My family couldn’t stop eating this!  The sweetness of the veggies with the tangy dressing was a perfect.

Veggie Main Dishes:  Gnocchi in Tomato Broth – Don’t let this intimidate you, gnocchi is pretty easy to make.  Basically, roast your potatoes and mix with egg, flour and a few other things until you have a dough.  Then you just roll it with your hands and cut into chunks with a knife.  What you end up with are light, fluffy gnocchi that you won’t want to stop eating.  Deb pairs this with a simple tomato broth.  I did change this up a bit though because when it came to strain the veggies out of the broth I found I just could not do it (I’m a bit of a veggie fanatic) so I pulled out my hand blender and made a smooth sauce.  It was delicious.

The Main Dish:  Vermouth Mussels with Tarragon Oven Fries – I am a sucker for mussels and fries.  I always get them when they are on the menu in restaurants and they are simple and quick to make at home.  And as crazy as it sounds, my toddler loves them too!  Deb’s mussels with the vermouth and tarragon were scarfed down in record time.  Mustard Milanese with Arugula Fennel Salad was my more complicated foray into the book.  Chicken breast fillets are dredged in flour, mustard sauce and panko breadcrumbs and then pan fried and served with a simple arugula and fennel salad on top.  Another hit with the family!  The chicken was moist and crunchy and Deb’s tip to bread the chicken and then put in the fridge for an hour was the answer to why I don’t fix many breaded dishes.  I hate when you bread something (chicken or fish around here) and then all of the breading falls off!  Popping the breaded fillets into the fridge for an hour really set the breading so every bit stayed on the chicken.  My hubby asked if I would make this dish again.

Desserts:  About one third of the cookbook is dedicated to desserts and I have to say they all look amazing but I haven’t had a chance to try them out.  Based on the chocolate peanut butter cake and the marshmallows I have no doubt they will be spectacular.  I am especially anxious to try the S’more Layer Cake, need I say more?

‘The Casual Vacancy” by J.K. Rowling

Well, well, well….where DO I begin? If you’ve read this blog before you’ve heard me say I’ve been accused of never reading a book I didn’t like. Can I tell you folks——I’ve just found one!!

The Casual Vacancy, J. K. Rowling’s first novel for adults, takes place in the small English town of Pagford where a young council member has died suddenly leaving what is known as a casual vacancy. The rest of the story follows the antics of various townspeople as a replacement is sought and eventually elected.
Reading this book was much like driving past an automobile accident…you don’t want to look but you have to. The characters are really unlikable people doing horrible things—but I couldn’t look away! The only character who may have had some redeeming qualities was the man who died! And since he dies at the very beginning of the book one can’t even be sure about him! 

Rowling does a great job intertwining the plotting and scheming of the various characters so that one behavior directly affects another behavior that directly affects another and so on. But none of the behaviors serve any good purpose.

The real trouble between council members stems from a disagreement over an area that lies between Pagford and Yarvil- a larger city a few miles away. After World War II Yarvil began building affordable housing that eventually spilled into and filled all of the city’s available land between themselves and Pagford. The construction was cheap and the community had multiple problems and soon Yarvil was delegating certain responsibilities to Pagford-the greatest being that a large section of the poorest housing known as the Fields would send their children to the school in Pagford. In a classic tale of “haves” versus “have nots” some on Pagford’s council were determined to rid themselves of  this burden but had never had the votes needed to accomplish the task. Now with the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother (who had been born in the Fields and was a strong proponent of Pagford support) the anti-Fields group saw their chance to tip the scales in their favor—if, of course, the “right” Pagfordian was  elected to the casual vacancy. And so the plots and schemes and undermining and character destruction begins!

You’ll meet a morbidly obese, self important gourmet deli owner and his snobbish wife. They have a son, an attorney, who follows in his father’s attitudinal footsteps. He is married to a woman who wants to be her teenage daughter. There’s also a husband who physically, emotionally, and verbally abuses his wife and two sons. The teenage son seeks revenge at one point which begins a tragic chain of events. You’ll also meet a heroin addicted mother of a teenage daughter and a two year old son. The little boy has just recently been returned to the household and the teenager pretty much runs wild. One of the characters is a social worker who briefly gets involved with this family even as her own situation is deteriorating. She moved to Pagford to live with her boyfriend but he is losing interest fast and her very unhappy teenage daughter is looking for revenge of her own.

Are you getting the picture here? There are many more characters, each with his or her own failings and part to play in the ultimate disaster the community becomes. It’s almost as though Rowling made a list of all reprehensible human behaviors and characteristics and then created a character that displayed each one. I just got so tired of reading about these misfits and their despicable behaviors. I know…shame on me for continuing to read the book, but I was sure something good was going to come of this mess. Spoiler alert—-it doesn’t!! Believe it or not the story actually gets worse at the end!

I absolutely believe that people like these characters really do live among us—we’ve all met them. But honestly…all at once? All in one town? All in one book? Spare me.


Interview with Craig Brown author of “Hello, Goodbye, Hello”

Today at 5:00pm on WCHE 1520am, Sam interviews Craig Brown author ofHello, Goodbye, Hello.

From “one of the funniest writers in Britain—wise, clever, hilarious, and a national treasure” (Helen Fielding, author of Bridget Jones’s Diary) comes this delightful book of “101 ingeniously linked encounters between the famous and the infamous” [The Observer (London) Best Books of the Year]. Can you imagine more unlikely meetings than these: Marilyn Monroe and Frank Lloyd Wright; Sergei Rachmaninoff and Harpo Marx; T. S. Eliot and Groucho Marx; Madonna and Martha Graham; Michael Jackson and Nancy Reagan; Tsar Nicholas II and Harry Houdini; Nikita Khrushchev and Marilyn Monroe? They all happened. Craig Brown tells the stories of 101 such bizarre encounters in this witty, original exploration into truth-is-stranger-than-fiction.

“Captivating… . A glittering daisy chain that reads like a mathematical proof of the theory of six degrees of separation… . Mr. Brown constructs portraits that have all the immediacy of reportage, all the fanciful detail of fiction. He has whipped up a gratifying summertime confection — funny, diverting, occasionally sad.”  —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“The book that made me laugh most was Craig Brown’s quirky game of biographical consequences.” —Julian Barnes, Times Literary Supplement “Books of the Year”

Craig Brown has been writing the Private Eye celebrity diary since 1989 and is a columnist for London’s Daily Mail. He has also written parodies for many publications, including the Daily Telegraph, Vanity Fair, The Times, and The Guardian. The author of several books of fiction and nonfiction, he lives in London.

Interview with Sadie Stein author of “Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story”

Today at 5:00pm on WCHE 1520am, Sam interviews Sadie Stein, author of Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story.

What does it take to write a great short story? In Object Lessons, twenty-one contemporary masters of the genre answer that question, sharing favorite stories from the pages of The Paris Review.

A laboratory for new fiction since its founding in 1953, The Paris Review has launched hundreds of careers while publishing some of the most inventive and best-loved stories of the last half century. This anthology – the first of its kind – is more than a treasury: it is an indispensable resource for writers, students and anyone else who wants to understand fiction from a writer’s point of view.

A repository of incredible fiction, Object Lessons includes contributions from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Daniel Alarcon, Donald Antrim, Lydia Davis, Dave Eggers, Mary Gaitskill, Aleksandar Hemon, Jonathan Lethem, Sam Lipsyte, Ben Marcus, Colum McCann, Lorrie Moore, Norman Rush, Mona Simpson and Ali Smith, among others.

Listen to Sam’s interview with Sadie on Podomatic or you can download the podcast on iTunes.

Interview with Justin Torres author of “We The Animals”

Today at 5:00pm on WCHE 1520am, Sam interviews Justin Torres,  author of We The Animals.

Three brothers tear their way through childhood – smashing tomatoes all over each other, building kites from trash, hiding out when their parents do battle, tiptoeing around the house as their mother sleeps off her graveyard shift. Paps and Ma are from Brooklyn – he’s Puerto Rican, she’s white – and their love is a serious, dangerous thing that makes and unmakes a family many times.

Life in this family is fierce and absorbing, full of chaos and heartbreak and the euphoria of belonging completely to one another. From the intense familial unity felt by a child to the profound alienation he endures as he begins to see the world, this beautiful novel reinvents the coming-of-age story in a way that is sly and punch-in-the-stomach powerful.

Written in magical language with unforgettable images, this is a stunning exploration of the viscerally charged landscape of growing up, how deeply we are formed by our earliest bonds, and how we are ultimately propelled at escape velocity toward our futures.

We the Animals [is] the kind of sensitive, carefully wrought autobiographical first novel that may soon be extinct from the mainstream publishing world…An affecting story of love, loss and the irreversible trauma that a single event can bring to a family. ~The New York Times

A novel so honest, poetic, and tough that it makes you reexamine what it means to love and to hurt.~O, The Oprah Magazine

Justin Torres grew up in upstate New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, Glimmer Train, and other publications. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is a recipient of the Rolón United States Artist Fellowship in Literature, and is now a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford. He has worked as a farmhand, a dog-walker, a creative writing teacher, and a bookseller.

Listen to Sam’s interview with Justin on Podomatic or you can download the podcast on iTunes.

“The Dressmaker” by Kate Alcott

I recently finished reading The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott and although it’s a story about the Titanic tragedy it’s not the usual take on the disaster. The Dressmaker focuses mainly on the aftermath of the ship’s sinking…an aspect of the story I knew very little about. The author uses verbatim testimony from the transcripts of U. S. Senate hearings that were held in an attempt to discover what exactly happened and who, if anyone, was at fault. The hearings also investigated the behavior of survivors and why the numbers were so skewed in favor of the wealthier passengers. Out of 2,223 people on board the Titanic, 706 survived and of that number 60 percent were from first class. Therein lies the story that Miss Alcott tells in The Dressmaker.

Tess Collins is an ambitious young woman desperately looking for a way out of her class restricted existence. She is a talented dressmaker and is determined to make her mark on the world…if only she can find a way. That opportunity arises when she meets famous fashion designer Lucile Duff Gordon just as she is about to board the Titanic and agrees to become the designer’s personal maid. Of course the disastrous sinking occurs only four days into the voyage and actually the author deals with the sinking and rescue in very quick measure. What happens when they eventually land in New York is when the story really begins to take shape.

A United States senator is determined to prove negligence on the part of the White Star Line and begins hearings in New York almost immediately. However, what begins to become apparent through the testimony of various survivors is how class and wealth determined to a great extent who lived and who did not. Reports of life boats being launched with 12 people aboard when they could have held upwards of 60 people, stories of half full life boats refusing to pick up survivors still in the water, and other horrendous acts of cowardice and malice were documented during the hearings. And Lucile Duff Gordon and her husband Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon find themselves smack in the middle of this maelstrom. Because of the negative publicity and fierce public outcry, the designer is forced into seclusion and Tess gets her chance to prove her value to Lady Gordon by taking over the preparations for the upcoming fashion shows.

But Tess’s allegiance to her employer is torn. She has developed a strong friendship with one of the surviving sailors from the ship and he was aboard Lady Gordon’s lifeboat. So he knows what really occurred that night and has hinted to Tess that her high regard for the designer may be ill placed. Poor Tess is truly stuck in the middle! She owes so much to Lady Gordon but finds it harder and harder to overlook what is becoming clear….Lady Gordon concerned herself with her own survival at the expense of many others.

There is another male suitor pursuing Tess during the story as well. He is a wealthy businessman, twice divorced, and I honestly found that relationship to be a little far-fetched. I didn’t think it added anything to the story except to give Tess another chance to show the reader what she was really made of. 

I enjoyed this book although I can’t say I loved it. I thought the writing drug a bit toward the end and it was fairly predictable. However, the information from the Senate hearings was fascinating and horrible at the same time. This was a side of the tragedy I was totally unaware of. Another interesting tidbit I discovered is that Kate Alcott is the pen name for Patricia O’Brien, a New York Times best selling author. Evidently because her previous novel had not sold well, her publisher passed on The Dressmaker as did 12 other publishing houses. Her agent decided to try another tactic and tried selling the book under the pen name, Kate Alcott. The book sold in three days!

~ Judy

Interview with Vaddey Ratner author of “In The Shadow of the Banyan”

Today at 5:00pm on WCHE 1520am, Sam interviews Vaddey Ratner, author of In The Shadow of the Banyan.

For seven-year-old Raami, the shattering end of childhood begins with the footsteps of her father returning home in the early dawn hours bringing details of the civil war that has overwhelmed the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Soon the family’s world of carefully guarded royal privilege is swept up in the chaos of revolution and forced exodus.

Over the next four years, as she endures the deaths of family members, starvation, and brutal forced labor, Raami clings to the only remaining vestige of childhood—the mythical legends and poems told to her by her father. In a climate of systematic violence where memory is sickness and justification for execution, Raami fights for her improbable survival.

Displaying the author’s extraordinary gift for language, In the Shadow of the Banyan is testament to the transcendent power of narrative and a brilliantly wrought tale of human resilience.

“The humanity…shines through…in the author’s depiction of a pure, unbroken love between daughter and father and in Ms. Ratner’s portraits of the human will to survive.” ~ Howard French, The Wall Street Journal

“By countering the stark and abject reality of her experience with lyrical descriptions of the natural beauty of Cambodia and its people, Ratner has crafted and elegiac tribute to the Cambodia she knew and loved.” ~Booklist

Vaddey Ratner was five years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. After four years, having endured forced labor, starvation, and near execution, she and her mother escaped while many of her family members perished. In 1981, she arrived in the U.S. as a refugee not knowing English and, in 1990, went on to graduate as her high school class valedictorian. She is a summa cum laude graduate of Cornell University, where she specialized in Southeast Asian history and literature. In recent years she traveled and lived in Cambodia and Southeast Asia, writing and researching, which culminated in her debut novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan.

Listen to Sam’s interview with Vaddey Ratner on Podomatic or you can download the podcast on iTunes.