Sunday, August 21, 2011

Weekend Cooking: Kid-Friendly Pinto Bean and Tomatillo Tostadas

Moving toward a plant-based diet has been easier at some times than others. Home? Easy. Traveling? Hard. Breakfast? Easy. Dinner? Doable but labor intensive – it takes a lot a prep work and ingredients to make a vegan meal tasty enough for a family that enjoys meat. Summer? Easy. School year? That’s what I was worried about. So with September rolling around again, one of the things I wanted to do was come up with a few go-to, kid-friendly vegan meals that I could put together on a weeknight, once the activity-go-round starts up again in next month. Here’s the one my family likes best – and the leftovers make an awesome filling for a vegan wrap later in the week.

This does take about an hour to make, but if you have the beans already made (I always have pressure-cooked beans ready to go) or use canned, you can have this on the table in about an hour, with only about 10 minutes of hands-on time – perfect for helping with homework or supervising piano practice!

Pinto Bean and Tomatillo Tostadas

4 cups cooked pinto beans
1 batch Quick Tomatillo Salsa (recipe follows)
8 corn tortillas
Olive oil for brushing
Salt and cayenne pepper, to taste

Place both ingredients in a saucepan or small Dutch oven over medium heat and bring to a boil. Allow to cook on low heat for about an hour, until the liquid becomes a thick sauce. Don’t stir too enthusiastically or frequently, because the beans will get mushy, and that’s not what we’re going for!

Meanwhile, heat oven to 400 degrees F. Brush tortillas on both sides with olive oil using a pastry brush, and place on a baking tray (two if necessary). Bake for about 5 minutes (using a paring knife to deflate any steam bubbles in the tortillas) until just beginning to brown, then flip the tortillas and bake for another 5 minutes, or until tortillas are golden and crisp. (They do firm up a bit as they cool, so don’t worry if they’re not chip-like.) Remove from oven and salt lightly.

Serve with your family’s favorite tostada toppings: cilantro, tomatoes, lettuce, olives, pickled jalapeños are ours.

Quick Tomatillo Salsa

10 tomatillos, quartered
8-10 green onions, roughly chopped
4 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped
½ cup fresh cilantro
¼ cup lime juice
2 T olive oil
2 t cumin
Salt and cayenne, to taste

Place all ingredients in a blender and puree until almost smooth. Taste and season. That’s it.

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. Thanks to Beth Fish Reads for hosting!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Novella Review: Christopher Morley's Parnassus on Wheels

When Frances of Nonsuch Books mentioned the Art of the Novella Challenge, I was intrigued. But also a bit intimidated. My limited experience with novellas led me to believe that they’re rather like black holes – small yes, but incredibly dense. I’m thinking Kundera’s Slowness or Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men -- a short but intense intellectual workout. And anyone who’s checked in here recently knows that I’m on intellectual hiatus until the end of summer.*

Still, I love the near immediate gratification of a slim book, so I decided to poke through the Melville House catalog and see if there wasn’t something less than grim. I threw out the Russians immediately. Sorry Leo and Ivan – definitely winter fare. Every memory of Joyce I have involves a headache, and the Dublin pub crawl is only one of them – bye my Irish friend. But eventually I got to a part of the catalog that seemed far less threatening, inviting even. Being a Long Island girl, I was familiar with Christopher Morley from the beautiful park that’s named after him. So far so good. Then I read the description of his Parnassus on Wheels and saw it was a romantic comedy. No black hole there! Yippee – I could participate in the Art of the Novella challenge without harshing my summer groove! Good thing, because it was a fun little find!

The story is narrated by Helen McGill, the long-suffering spinster sister of nature essayist Andrew McGill. She’s been baking bread and cleaning up after her famous but selfish brother for 15 years when Roger Mifflin stops by their farm to try and sell Andrew his Parnassus, a bookstore on wheels, so he can retire to Brooklyn. Helen realizes that she’ll have even more work to do if her brother gets his hands on Parnassus, so she rashly decides to buy Parnassus herself and have her first-ever holiday. Mifflin comes along to show her how to work Parnassus, her brother can’t believe he’s been left high and dry, and hilarity and romance inevitably ensue.

The novella isn’t really deep or complex, but what was so very interesting was Morley’s ability to take on the voice of a 40ish woman who believes life has passed her by. At one point, Helen finds Mifflin’s notebook, and considers the impact he’s had on the people he’s met:
It seemed as if I had stumbled unawares on the pathetic, brave and lonely heart of the little man. I’m a commonplace creature, I’m afraid, insensible to many of the deeper things in life, but every now and then, like all of us, I come face to face with something that thrills me. I saw how this little, red-bearded pedlar was like a cake of yeast in the big, heavy dough of humanity: how he traveled about trying to fulfill in his own way his ideals of beauty. I felt almost motherly toward him: I wanted to tell him I understood him.

The way Helen is beginning to cherish Mifflin is so sweet, and rang so true, that I actually went to the internet to confirm that Christopher Morley wasn’t a pseudonym for a woman!

“Dear” is the perfect word for this novella – it’s a prototypical romantic comedy, something that could easily have been made into a Hepburn/Tracy movie. It’s completely different than any other novellas I’ve read: a breezy, summery story to usher me into fall.

And all those weightier tomes I’ve been putting off until then.

*That would actually be Monday, but I realize what a luxury it is to have the summer off in the first place, so I promise not to whine about it, no matter how sorely I’m tempted.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Book Review: Banana Yoshimoto’s The Lake

Death is always so close in a Banana Yoshimoto story that you can almost touch it. The Lake is no exception. But in this novel I felt like Yoshimoto was exploring something slightly different: the ways in which people choose life, despite the certainty of death.

Chihiro, a young muralist, narrates the quirky story of her love affair with a shy, sincere medical student, Nakajima. Both of them are motherless, and somewhat estranged from their fathers. They come into each others’ lives slowly and cautiously, first as a comforting presence in the window across the street, then as acquaintances, then as friends and finally, almost accidentally, as lovers. But there’s something so terrible in Nakajima’s past that he can’t discuss it – something that makes him seem somehow out of step with the rest of the world.

Compared with other Yoshimoto heroines, I found the tone of Chihiro’s first-person narration very direct and accessible. I appreciated Chihiro’s mixed feelings about her family and her lover – nothing comes easy in her world.
Playing at marriage, playing at being a dad, playing at being a full member of society.

Everything in my life revolves around people
playing at being something.

But that’s only because we have to be that way in order to get on with our lives. Just because people are playing doesn’t mean their hearts aren’t in it.
p. 141

And yet even Chihiro is aware that she is not fully engaged in anything – in her work, in her love affair, in her family – because there is a part of her life that she is not being entirely honest about.

This is a slim book, but it travels a mysterious terrain, making it slower going than you might expect. Dreams provide an alternate form of reality, which is a bit unsettling when juxtaposed with Chihiro’s apparent realism. Readers more familiar with current events in Japan may have guessed more about the mystery of Nakajima’s past than I did,* but I don't think the effect will be any less jarring.

This book lacks the sweetness of the other Yoshimoto books I have read, but I think that’s okay. It has a certain grittiness instead, something I liked almost as much. I think Yoshimoto fans will embrace this book too. But the edgier voice may help find a wider audience for Yoshimoto among those who like a more mysterious – or even gothic – read.

This is my first book for this year’s Japanese Literature Challenge 5, hosted by Dolce Bellezza. I’m trying to expand my readings this year, so this will probably be my only Yoshimoto title. Then again, I enjoy her writing so much, it’s possible I’ll add another if I can squeeze in the time.

*Let me say that I’m glad I heard about this book from Dolce Bellezza’s site, and not by reading the publisher’s description, because it gives A LOT away – avoid it if you want to let the book reveal itself to you in layers.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Blog Relay for Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen’s The Cosy Knave: Answer to Question 8

Today I have the baton in the blog relay for Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen’s new novel, The Cozy Knave. I'm revealing the answer to question number 8. And question number 9 follows. You will have to follow the link below to find out the answer to number 9! What a great idea for a book launch interview, don’t you think?

Yesterday’s question was: What makes your cosy cosy?

As question 2 indicates, I began plotting and writing The Cosy Knave almost out of the blue. Of course I had some vague ideas about what constituted a cosy, but shortly before I embarked on my new subgenre, I consulted a blogger who is a real expert so I had a chance of getting it right. These days, all rules are there to be challenged, of course, still I thought it would be a good idea to stick to these five rules of thumb:

a) an amateur sleuth with a useful job or position, but also someone who can get help from the police when she needs it: the librarian Rhapsody, engaged to the local constable.
b) a suitable setting: a small village where everybody knows everybody else, including their sordid - or silly - secrets, the kind of place that tend to make you forget that the good, old days never really existed.
c) the right kind of crimes, meaning a couple of murders are all right, as long as the readers are spared the dirty truths about the shock and pain they cause. For once, bloodthirsty old Macbeth got it right when he said: "If it were done when ´tis done then ´twere well it were done quickly´.
d) plenty of quirky characters: readers will expect prattling dog walkers, stuck-up mushroom ´experts´, taciturn farmers and constables called Smith, Wesson and Winchester.
e) finally, the traditional cosy is expected to be free of sex scenes and swearing - so this is the perfect gift for granny, your young daughter, or anyone who likes having their crime candied.

Thanks, Dorte, for letting me participate! I cannot wait to read your new book!

So here is the next question in the relay:

9) Do you consider yourself a cosy mystery writer, or do you plan to publish in other sub-genres?

To find out the answer, you will have to head to Clarissa Draper´s blog tomorrow!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Audiobook Review: The Sunday Philosophy Club

CAUTION: Snarky Review Ahead. Because Isabel Dalhousie annoyed the heck out of me!

Having enjoyed a number of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books by the same author, my husband and I downloaded Alexander McCall Smith’s The Sunday Afternoon Philosophy Club for a recent drive to Chicago. I’d heard the main character in the series, Isabel Dalhousie, was an academic, and we both thought that might make for an interesting twist on her sleuthing. We started the audiobook somewhere in Central Pennsylvania.

When it finished up as we cruised past Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field, my hubby turned to me and deadpanned, “Well, that’s eight and a half hours of our lives we’ll never get back.” Indeed.

First books in series are difficult – rather than focusing on the mystery at hand, authors often wind up focusing on “setting up” the characters and their relationships. I get that. But in this case the main mystery and the subplot mysteries were very thin – and were solved through serendipity. Isabel Dalhousie didn’t demonstrate any great intellectual prowess or cultural acumen in solving the problems, just a combination of nosiness and dumb luck.

As for her characterization, the whole discussion of her work as a journal editor was off-putting to me. I know a couple of extraordinarily hard-working academic journal editors – at least one of whom is a pretty regular reader of this blog. Most of them do the job against the background of their own considerable work as professors and researchers. It’s a huge undertaking, not the dilettantish endeavor that McCall Smith makes it out to be. Phew — getting a manuscript in the mail. And then actually sending it out to a couple of reviewers. Excellent day’s work – time for a glass of wine and an omelet with the favorite niece’s old beau. Well done.

But what annoyed me most about Isabel Dalhousie went beyond the subpar mystery and the thinness of the characters. Rather than entertaining me, I had the impression that the Scottish journal editor was lecturing me the entire time. Me and everyone else who came within her general vicinity: family, friends, servants, dog walking strangers. I know Alexander McCall Smith is an ethicist. But what about the ethics of badgering your readers? What about the ethics of acting like a smartypants? This isn’t Sophie’s World, for crying out loud. It’s supposed to be a cozy mystery, not a lecture from a Problem of Evil course. I just couldn’t get over the disturbing flashbacks to freshman year at college.

(No wonder her Sunday Philosophy Club never meets. I can just imagine a club member's calculus on a sunny Sunday morning. “What shall I do on this beautiful Edinburgh day? Well, I could amble through the Royal Botanical Garden. Maybe take in the Ceilidh Culture Festival. Or I could go over to Isabel Dalhousie’s and be hit over the head with a Kantian imperative. Hmmm. The Royal Botanical Garden it is then.”)

Narrator Davina Porter does her absolute best with this audiobook, let me underscore that. She executes a wide range of characters skillfully and credibly. I especially liked her characterization of the men in the book – very engaging, and each very different. I just don’t think she had a lot to work with in this case. I would happily listen to her read another title – just not in this series!

After I finished the book I looked at some other reviews, and they were all over the board. Some people love the series, and some just hate it. Count me among the peeved.


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Book Reviews: Georgette Heyer’s Frederica and The Masqueraders

Ah, romance!

There is something wonderfully comforting about reading a novel in which the most exciting element is a rather chaste kiss – the first of many, we are to believe, because nice women don’t kiss men who aren’t going to be their husbands. A place where good men are trustworthy and cads are harshly dealt with. A place where a woman’s main job is to find the perfect husband. A place where a happy ending is guaranteed.

When I’m looking to be transported to a simpler and happier place than the world in which I live, I know I can turn to the guilty pleasure of a Regency Romance. Apparently I’ve needed a bit of “transportation” this summer, because I’ve read two such books in the past two months, and enjoyed them thoroughly.

My first was Georgette Heyer’s Frederica, a delightful if predicable story about the strong-willed young woman who comes to London for a season in search of a successful match for her beautiful but slow-witted younger sister, Charis. She employs the help of a distant cousin and confirmed bachelor, The Marquis of Alverstoke, to ease Charis’ way in society. The Marquis goes along with the plan to annoy his conniving sisters, but gets more than he bargained for when he unintentionally becomes the protector of Frederica’s exuberant brothers and their bad-mannered dog, “the Baluchistan hound.” Frederica is resigned to her role as spinster and guardian to her young brothers, but I had enough faith in the genre to figure that wasn’t going to happen. Still, the energetic brothers and the Marquis’ scheming sisters make for some interesting plot twists. Nothing taxing, but still thoroughly enjoyable.

I enjoyed the first Heyer so much that I downloaded another on my Kindle, The Masqueraders, based mostly on its high goodreads ratings. When I finally got to it, I realized how lucky the choice was – the book was way more complex than the first, including not only a disguised brother and sister (masquerading as gentlefolk of the opposite sex, no less) and a pair of interesting romances (especially considering the gender reversals, that was pretty hilarious), but a mystery besides! And the answer to the mystery is not even known by its subjects: who are “Peter” and “Kate” Merriott, really? The secondary characters actually make the book. Sir Anthony “The Mountain” Fanshawe is a truly romantic hero, charming because he’s so surprisingly unconventional. John, the Merriott's servant, clearly knows more than he lets on. And the bad guys in this book are REALLY bad. Like carrying off an heiress by force bad. And framing your rival with a murder bad. The Masqueraders was by far my favorite of the two Regency Romances I read this summer.

Unlike Jane Austen or Elizabeth Gaskell, Georgette Heyer, writing from her relatively comfortable 20th century perch, was herself unfettered and undamaged by the constraints imposed on her female characters by the societies she was writing about. Being so removed from the time period may be the reason she could be so sanguine about her characters’ prospects for happiness—she never suffered because of prevailing attitudes and customs of the time, like female authors of the time would have. But then, if I want to read something that accurately represents a particular time period, I read something written then – not something written two or three hundred years after the fact. A Regency Romance is just some good, clean, literary fun! If you still have time for summer reading, these romances would be good ones to put in your beach bag, or load on your e-reader.

Just an aside: Today I noticed a button on Leeswammes blog that led to Stiletto Storytime’s Georgette Heyer Gems of August 2011 event, happening this month. She’s focusing on Heyer with reviews, guest posts and a really nice giveaway. If you’re interested in Heyer, you should check it out!