Saturday, June 30, 2012

Weekend Cooking Book Review: WEEKNIGHTS WITH GIADA

Confession: I didn’t have the best experience with my first Giada de Laurentis cookbook, Giada’s Family Dinners. The dishes I tried came out fine, but almost everything was in the “Weekend Cooking” category – the stuff you make rarely, because it takes lots of time and lots of ingredients. (The Everyday Family Entrees section included Rack of Lamb with Mint-Basil Pesto and Veal Scallopine with Saffron Cream Sauce. Delicious, yes, but not the stuff a working mom is likely to whip up after a day at the office.) Still, the flavors were good, so when I saw the Netgalley of her new cookbook, Weeknights with Giada, was available for review, I decided to put it to the test before I bought it.

With a beautiful steak in the freezer, we decided to try the Rib Eye Steaks with Smoky Arrabiata Sauce. The prep was simple: the arrabiata sauce consisted of canned, crushed tomatoes and veggies with a serrano pepper and smoked paprika for kick. No oil at all – just a few pulses in the food processor and heat for 25 minutes. And the steak was just coated with olive oil and salt. Definitely an “after work” kind of meal, but reviews were split. My husband loved it. My oldest pronounced it, “Meh.” But my youngest asked, “Why can’t we just have ketchup?” And I thought the addition of 2 tablespoons of sugar into the already sweet crushed tomatoes (I used San Marzano tomatoes) was just too much against a not very spicy arrabiata. But I liked the idea, and it was a good deal healthier than ketchup. Score one and a half a points for Giada.

To be fair, I wanted to try one more recipe. In reading the book, I noticed that a number of recipes called for canned salmon. That seemed weird to me – I grew up on Long Island, and while I can easily give up meat, I could never give up fish. But I am fussy about it. Could Giada convince me to like canned fish? I was dubious. Still, sustainably caught fresh salmon is very pricey, so sustainably caught canned salmon, at about half the price, would be a nice alternative. So last night we tackled Salmon Cakes with Lemon-Caper Yogurt Sauce.

Verdict: YUM! I really couldn’t believe it. The salmon cakes were a bit of a mess to put together, and next time I would definitely put them on parchment paper while they rest in the fridge. I was suspicious about making two recipes (the cakes and the sauce) on a weeknight, but in this case a number of ingredients could be prepped once and used in both recipes. My husband and I agreed it wasn’t any more hassle to put two together than one. And the taste was fantastic. Both of my girls went back for more, and my oldest said she loved the salmon with the corn. Four points for Giada that round.

Maybe it stands to reason that now that she’s a mom herself, De Laurentis has a better feel for the pressures of a working mom who still wants to put a healthy meal on the table. I found this a big improvement, time-wise, over her previous family-oriented book, and I’ll probably be buying this one, because there are a number of other meals I’d like to try, especially the pastas.

Salmon Cakes with Lemon-Caper Yogurt Sauce from Weeknights with Giada by Giada De Laurentis

Salmon Cakes

1 (14.75 oz) can boneless, skinless pink salmon, drained

1 large egg, beaten

1/3 cup chopped fresh chives

26 saltine crackers, crushed

½ cup frozen corn, thawed

¼ cup mayonnaise, plus more as needed

2 tbsp Dijon mustard

1 tbsp capers, rinsed and drained

1 tbsp grated lemon zest

1 tbsp fresh lemon juice

3 tbsp vegetable oil

3 tbsp unsalted butter

Using a fork, flake the salmon into ½-inch pieces into a medium bowl. Add the egg, chives, ½ cup of the crushed crackers, corn, mayonnaise, mustard, capers, lemon zest, and lemon juice. Mix gently until just combined. Form into 10 patties, each about ¾ inch thick (if the mixture is too dry to form into patties, add extra mayonnaise, 1 tbsp at a time). Carefully coat the patties in the remaining crushed crackers and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

In a large nonstick skillet, heat oil and butter together over medium heat. Add the patties and cook 7 to 8 minutes on each side, until golden and crispy. Drain patties on paper towels.

Lemon-Caper Sauce

½ cup full-fat plain Greek yogurt

1 ½ tbsp capers, rinsed, drained and chopped

1 tbsp grated lemon zest

1 tbsp fresh lemon juice

½ tsp kosher salt

¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper

In a small bowl, mix the yogurt, capers, lemon zest, lemon juice, salt and pepper.

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!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Book Review: EQUAL OF THE SUN by Anita Amirrezvani

Growing up one of my best friends had a dad from Iran. Only the family never referred to it as Iran. They referred to themselves as “Persian.” Over the years, spending time at their house, “Persian” came to stand for a beautiful (though unintelligible) language, sweet desserts and colorful carpets. And over the years, as more and more bad news came out of the Middle East, I think I’ve compartmentalized my beliefs: Iran as a political entity, and Persia as a culture. Little wonder, then, that I jumped at the chance to read Anita Amirrezvani’s Equal of the Sun, a historical novel about Imperial Safavi Persia.

The book tells the story of Pari Khan Khanoom Safavi, a powerful daughter of Shah Tahmasb, as told by her faithful eunuch servant, Javaher. Pari is both a diplomat and a poet, a woman of great importance. In fact, during her father’s reign she was one of his most trusted advisors. But her father’s death turns her world upside down, and she and Javaher have to negotiate a completely different world than the one they have previously inhabited.

This book was the first I’ve read about the Safavi dynasty, and I was surprised and intrigued by the power of the women in the book. Yes, they were part of an Islamic world. But according to Amirrezvani many were able to wield a behind-the-scenes power I never imagined. In fact, Pari uses her gender to her advantage. At one point, her former guardian vaguely suggests that Pari might have been involved in her brother’s death:

From behind her curtain, Pari said, “Curious rumors are always circulating amoung you men about the royal harem. You seem to imagine it as an opium den full of connivers, but it s more like an army regiment organized by rank and task. How could you know what goes on in the harem? Have you ever been inside?”

“Of course not,” said Khalil Khan.

“Then I think you are best off leaving such concerns to me.”
p. 339
I was also fascinated by the long-term orientation of the characters in the book as they created and destroyed alliances based on their own goals. Amirrezvani presents the reader with a ruthless world where the Shah was truly all-powerful, with the fate of his subjects literally in his hands, to dispose of as he saw fit. Individuals in the palace are shown constantly balancing their own needs against the Shah’s, advancing often by the destruction of others.

As a historical novel, Equal of the Sun has exactly what you’d ask for: strong, likeable characters, exotic locations, believable relationships and lots of intrigue. Even at more than 400 pages it’s a quick read, and lots of fun, although the unfamiliar names and shifting alliances were sometimes confusing. I really enjoyed it, and I’d recommend it highly for those who enjoy historical fiction, particularly those with an interest in Middle Eastern history. Another one for the Historical Fiction Challenge!

I read this book as part of a TLC Book Tour, and received a free copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. For links to other opinions, look here.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Weekend Cooking Book Review: Tamar Adler's AN EVERLASTING MEAL

If I told you that I might never make a recipe from a cookbook I’d read faithfully, you’d think it was a flop, wouldn’t you? So if I then told you that this has become one of my favorite books, inspiring and heartwarming, you might think I was a bit loony. But I can make both statements without reservation when discussing Tamar Adler’s outstanding meditation on cooking from the heart and pantry, An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace. I cannot recommend this book highly enough for people who love food: cooking it, sharing it, and just thinking about it.

Adler’s book shares the life lessons she has learned while working in the kitchen. The chapter entitled “How to Feel Powerful,” for example, explores the tactical use of strong ingredients like anchovies, capers, olives and cornichons that should always occupy your pantry. Another chapter, “How to Make Peace,” discusses turning a small amount of anything into a meal through the use of rice and polenta. It’s more philosophy than cookbook, really, and thought-provoking in its simplicity.

In the chapter entitled “How to Build a Ship,” Adler discusses how to regain your love of the kitchen when you’re overwhelmed or frustrated. Here’s some great advice:

Let smells in. Let the smell of hot tarmac in the summer remind you of a meal you ate the first time you landed in a hot place, when the ground smelled like it was melting. Let the smell of salt remind you of a paper basket of fried clams you ate once, squeezing them with lemon as you walked on a boardwalk. Let it reach your deeper interest. When you smell the sea, and remember the basket of hot fried clams, and the sound of skee-balls knocking against each other, let it help you love what food can do, which is to tie this moment to that one. Then something about the wind off the sea will have sttled in your mind, and carried the fried clams and squeeze of lemon with it. p. 142
So why won’t I make a recipe from the book? Because Adler’s recipes are simply meant as a starting point for the readers own imagination, tastes and circumstances. I can’t help feeling that I’d fail Adler miserably by making up one of her recipes as written, as she’s inspired me to do so much more. But she definitely provides some wonderful templates in the book, including a recipe for Ribollita I intend to work from this week.

The cover notes indicate that Adler was an editor at Harper’s Magazine, as well as a cook at Prune and Chez Panisse. This book brings together both her talent with words and her love of food in a really beautiful way. I can’t think of a real cook who wouldn’t enjoy this book, and I’ve already picked it out as a great Christmas gift for at least two people, as I think it would be especially comforting to read in winter.

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!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Guest Post: Olivia Boler's THE FLOWER BOWL SPELL

Being hosted by Col Reads is such a treat. Thank you so much for having me as a guest blogger today and for bringing some attention to my new novel The Flower Bowl Spell, available as an ebook and in paperback.

I’m feeling particularly jazzed today. I recently got done attending the Book Passage Children’s Writers & Illustrators Conference in beautiful Corte Madera, California. Since I’m drafting a young adult (YA) prequel about Memphis Zhang, the witchy heroine of The Flower Bowl Spell, which takes place when she’s about fifteen years old, going to this conference was my chance to see if I was on the right track with my writing so far.

A little about Book Passage. It’s an amazing independent bookstore that also has a lovely café and sells travel gear, cards, and gifts. They have a superb book-buying staff that does tons of research on the latest best books out there, and are extremely selective about what they carry. They also host a bazillion book groups as well as small conferences, classes, and workshops for aspiring and established writers. I’ve attended readings by authors I admire, bought books, and nibbled on cookies in the café, but this was the first conference I’d attended there.

I’m no newbie when it comes to writing conferences, but the ones I’ve gone to in the past were pretty different. One focused on writing and craft, and less on selling and publishing. It was held in the Napa Valley, so there was plenty of good food—and of course, incredible wine! Another conference I attended a couple of years ago was the San Francisco Writers Conference. This one was fairly huge with hundreds of people and loads of panels mostly focused on getting agents, attracting editors, and marketing tips. While it inspired me to get The Flower Bowl Spell published, it was also overwhelming and gave me a sense of just how many writers there are out there who share the same dream of publishing—and who might not see their dreams realized. (Did I mention it was overwhelming?) Of course, with self-publishing gaining ground, those writers have a better shot, but that’s another blog post…

Thanks so much, Olivia, for sharing your thoughts on Col Reads. I'm looking forward to finishing "The Flower Bowl Spell" soon!

Book Review: Pamela Haag's MARRIAGE CONFIDENTIAL

I was looking for a non-fiction title when I got this book description for review for Pamela Haag’s Marriage Confidential:
With bracing candor, Marriage Confidential take us inside a world where romantic ideas have given way to a “post-romantic” mood and a fair number of marriages end up “semi-happy.” It’s a world where the husbands of “workhorse wives” pursue the Having It All dream that married women have abandoned; where children have migrated from the children’s table to the centerpiece; and where technology, demography, and economy place unprecedented stresses on marital fidelity. Among other examples of marriage trailblazers, Haag even presents a case for how updated ideas of non-monogamy might be an option for the future.

Uniquely weaving together cultural commentary, memoir, storytelling, history, and research, Marriage Confidential gives us a riveting glimpse of what the future of marriage might look like.

Well, looking at my 21st wedding anniversary, I figured I was the target market for the book. But it turns out I was utterly wrong. I just wasn’t prepared for Haag’s general level of negativity about marriage.

I don’t think of myself as either Puritan or a marriage apologist, but I found the author’s premise shocking: If you’re not 100%, head-over-heels in “romance” with your spouse absolutely all the time, you’re being cheated. Monogamy, Haag suggests, is a trap for the soul. And the antidote for the marital doldrums? It pretty much boils down to this: “Have an affair.”

Having admitted that “having it all,” has morphed into “doing it all” for modern wives, the author still seems to want it all. Seriously.

Haag realizes that many people will see her thesis as “whining.” And she’s right, that was my first reaction. She has a husband who loves her, a kid she adores, a good job. Really, is life so bad? Is a marriage that doesn’t play out like the final scene from a Jane Austen novel every day just “semi-happy,” as the author puts it? I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her poor husband—that would be a lot to live up to.

But then I realized maybe that’s not entirely fair. I consider myself happily married, so I don’t really buy the premise that modern marriage is a broken institution. And I think that’s why the book simply didn’t work for me. Still, lots of people have loved this book, so I guess it’s tapping into some kind of cultural anxiety. It’s just not one I happen to share.

I read this book as part of a TLC Book Tour, and received a free copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. You can find links to other opinions here.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Book Review: THE CONCUBINE SAGA by Lloyd Lofthouse

I have to confess: I read Lloyd Lofthouse’s The Concubine Saga, while I was teaching in China and I really think my review is impacted by that fact. The saga tells the story of Robert Hart, a low-level interpreter in Britain’s Foreign Service, who went on to become a trusted advisor to China’s Qing royal family. Lofthouse credits much of Hart’s tremendous success in China to his relationship with his concubine, Ayaou, and builds his novels around that relationship. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, not so much for the love story, but for its tremendous insights into the complex relationship between China and the West.

The Concubine Saga brings together two previously released novels: My Splendid Concubine and its sequel, Our Hart.Putting two novels together isn’t always a winning strategy, but I think in this case the two novels really do form a complete work. The story opens with Hart, a Methodist from Northern Ireland, trying to redeem himself after a dissolute stay at University. His plan is to make a name for himself in China, and return triumphantly home. He never could have anticipated, however, how living in China would change him.

Hart arrived in China during the height of the Taiping Rebellion, when Southern China was a complex war zone where the Taiping “Longhairs,” based in Nanking, fought not only the Chinese, but British and Portuguese forces trying to secure China’s trade routes. Hart’s position in the British consulate in Ningpo brought him into the conflict, and he met his future concubine, Ayaou, during a raid he participated in to take back British opium – and secondarily, the local boat people who were helping the British – from the rebels.

What Lofthouse does very well is bring the world of 19th century China to life. He gives disturbing insight into the place of women in the society, helping the reader understand the cultural issues that led to the concubine system. He also underscores the ethnic tensions between the Manchu, founders of the Qing dynasty, and the majority Han Chinese, whose ambitions the Manchu kept in check. He underscores the relationship between language and culture, and points out that while the Chinese writing system served to unify, spoken language served as a great divider, both socially and economically, between China’s many ethnic groups.

What the author did less well, for me at least, was set up a compelling love story. Hart, through his chivalrous intentions no doubt, winds up with both Ayaou (although he never actually has the opportunity to pay for her properly) and her sister Shao-mei as concubines. The way Hart and the teenaged sisters seem to be “playing house” felt sort of creepy to me. Yes, Hart was a very young man, and Lofthouse does try to underscore his conflict, but the girls were younger than 15, for goodness sake. I had a hard time getting past that. The passages with the two pubescent sisters fighting over Hart’s “sun instrument” were particularly cringe-worthy.

Still, as a Westerner working in China, I found myself appreciating the lessons that Hart learned the hard way about “face,” and the place of foreigners in China. Ayaou, although on the lowest rung of the Chinese social ladder, is able to share the culture with Hart, because she has totally absorbed it. This allows him to replace fear with understanding and respect, and makes his success a possibility. This book – well, two books in one – is highly recommended for lovers of historical fiction, especially those with an interest in China. But I would also be quick to recommend it to anyone considering living in China for any amount of time, as I thought it really captured the conundrum of the expat life there admirably, even though the events Lofthouse described took place more than 100 years ago. Events happen quickly, but culture changes very slowly.

I read this book as part of a Premier Virtual Author Book Tour, and received a copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. For other opinions, check out the links here.

This is another one for the Historical Fiction 2012 Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry. Looks like there is little chance of me not finishing that one!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Book Review: Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

I love historical fiction with big female characters. And that’s what Susan Vreeland serves up with Clara and Mr. Tiffany, her homage to the “New Independent Woman” who ran the women’s design studio responsible for many of the best-known Tiffany lamp designs around the turn of the 20th century, Clara Driscoll.

Vreeland brings to life a story that only a few people knew – the story of Tiffany’s Women’s Division, and the prejudice his female workers faced at the hands of both Tiffany’s male workers and the unions that represented them – and from which women were barred. While open-minded enough to admire the talent and innovation of the women he hired, Tiffany’s company policies specifically prevented them from working directly with men, or from working once they were married. Additionally, the individual designer’s of Tiffany’s award winning lamps and windows were not given credit in his catalogues, allowing Tiffany to benefit from the actions of the women, while binding them to him in their obscurity.

 In addition to the feminist tension, there’s also capitalist tension, with Tiffany’s financial officers constantly at war with Tiffany’s designers. Not surprisingly, the “suits” are seeking profitability, while the “hands” are moved by creativity. The heart of this debate goes back as far as artists have required benefactors to pay for their continued innovation. But it’s interesting that this particular debate about the “corporatization” of art took place right at the time when the ornamentation of the Victorian era was being replaced by a more modern aesthetic. It made me wonder how much of the change was driven by the desire to produce more profitable art.

 The novel is compelling, and I found myself indignant at times, and charmed at others. But there were also times when I felt the story was somewhat constrained by Clara’s first person narration. I think that’s because Vreeland wants us to have context for Driscoll’s amazing accomplishments, but it served to contort the narrative, making Clara’s voice seem stilted, or worse, boastful:
Creativity happens, I thought, when you look at one thing and see another – like Mr. Tiffany seeing a lamp in a nautilus shell. No one would think of a woven basket in connection with an underwater scene, but I did. Fish swimming among tall seaweed made me think of a current threading its wayin front of and behind the warp of reeds. Water made of ripple glass could give the illusion that strips of glass could be pliable, as they might appear underwater. The fish would be recognizable but the rest more abstract, simpler, with fewer “things” in the sea. I sensed a coming breakthrough from Victorian quaintness to a new idiom, and took the drawing to Mr. Belknap. He approved immediately.p.209
You had me until the “coming breakthrough.” It’s a little thing, but in other parts the book reads so well that the “social history lesson” parts felt distracting. What I did love was Vreeland’s telling of the complex story of how Tiffany windows and lamps evolved, and how the Tiffany Studios pushed the boundaries of technique and design to produce the gorgeous pieces I’ve oohed-and-aahed at in museums. And I was somehow glad to know that a committed group of women were working ahead of their time to bring the pieces to life.

 This book is highly recommended for lovers of historical fiction and feminist fiction, especially those interested in the history of women in the workplace. I read this book as part of a TLC Book Tour for the paperback release of this novel, and received a copy in return for my honest opinion. Your can find links to other opinions here.