Saturday, September 28, 2013

Weekend Cooking: Col’s Plum and Almond Bread

This must have been a banner year for plums. My daughter’s music teacher showed up with a bag. And there was a peck left in the break room with a “Please take some” sign. I love stone fruit, but I have to admit I don’t cook with plums very often. So I put the largesse to work in an infinitely malleable Mark Bittman recipe for Fruit and Nut Bread. And I have to admit the results were so good that I’d actually buy plums to make it again – so I thought I’d share.

Col’s Plum and Almond Bread

(adapted from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
¾ cup sugar
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
4 Tbs. unsalted butter (plus more for the loaf pan)
1 ¼ cup skim milk
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla
¼ tsp. almond extract
1 cup chopped plums
½ cup slivered almonds

1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put the dry ingredients in a food processor. Add the butter and pulse until it’s completely worked into the flour. Place the flour mixture in a large mixing bowl. (Don’t continue in the food processor, or the bread will be tough.)

2) Whisk together the milk, egg and extracts. Fold into the dry ingredients, but don’t over mix. Next fold in the plums and any juice that have accumulated. And then fold in the nuts. Pour the batter into a greased loaf pan and bake for 55-60 minutes. It’s done when skewer poked into the center comes out clean.

3) Cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then turn out onto a wire cooling rack. Try to keep the kids from slicing until it’s completely cool, but don’t count on 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, September 14, 2013


One week on Cyprus was enough to hook me on Greek food forever. I absolutely loved the different combinations of sour yogurt and sweet vegetables, often accompanied by flaky pastry, that I found all over. The food was both fresh and comforting –worlds away from the heavy souvlakia sandwiches and moussaka that constituted Greek food in Astoria’s diners. But I’ve rarely cooked Greek inspired dinners at home, probably because I didn’t have a yia-yia to show me how. Which is why I took note when Couscous and Consciousness shared a recipe from Tessa Kiros’ Food From Many Greek Kitchens in a recent Weekend Cooking post, and ordered it from the library.

Who is Tessa Kiros? A European woman (mother from Finland, dad from Cyrus, born in London, now living in Italy) with an deep interest in the intersection of food and culture—which makes a lot of sense when you consider the intersection of fantastic cuisines she must have grown up with! She has written books addressing many aspects of her life – she is perhaps best known for her Nordic cookbook, Falling Cloudberries.

Take on Cooking: Traditional Greek home cooking, with an emphasis on regional specialties.

The Delicious Parts: This book is absolutely gorgeous – the sumptuous photos resemble a coffee table book about the Greek Islands. Kiros’ chapters don’t follow a traditional order – instead, they seem to reflect her thoughts on Greek food. The first four chapters explore Traditional Foods, Fasting Foods, Easter Foods and Shared Foods. The Greek Orthodox Church still observes a very strict fast during lent – no meat or eggs at all – so the Fasting Foods chapter was a natural source of vegetarian and vegan dishes.

My First Bites: I cooked four recipes from the book: Spanakopita (Spinach Pie), Tomatokeftedes (Fried Tomato Fritters), Spanakorizo (Spinach Rice) and Yiaourti (Yogurt on the Side). All of them were delicious. I actually used Kiros’ delicious Spanakopita filling in a simple phyllo pie, rather than make the individual rolls that she suggested, and everyone at the barbecue raved about it. My daughter inhaled the Spinach Rice – and it made a really delicious lunch later in the week, warmed up with the leftover Yiaourti.

Not Quite To My Taste: While I thought the flavors were fantastic, and the ingredients spot on, I did find myself modifying the cooking directions, adapting them to my modern kitchen. Some of the directions are complex — Kiros admits this herself – but as gorgeous as the book is, there are no illustrations of technique to help the reader through the difficult parts.

Recommendation? Devour, Split, Send it Back to the Kitchen? Devour or split, definitely – but I’d lean toward devour if you have a hole in your cookbook collection where a comprehensive guide to Greek cuisine belongs. I probably wouldn’t make many of the fussier, holiday-oriented recipes, but I can see making a great party out of the Mezedes (Shared Foods) section. I’d call it a great cookbook for a confident cook.

One Great Recipe: Tessa Kiros’ Spanakorizo

Spinach Rice

2 ½ pounds spinach, rinsed and drained (I used 12 oz baby spinach, and I thought the proportions were fine)

4 tablespoons olive oil

3 ½ ounces green onions, with some of the green, chopped

3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill (I used 3 teaspoons dried)

1 cup medium grain rice


Juice of 1 lemon

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon fresh mint, chopped

1) Coarsely chop the spinach leaves. Heat the olive oil in a very large pot and sauté the onions until pale gold and softened. Add the dill and sauté for 30 seconds or so then stir in the rice.

2) Now add the spinach. You might feel that it won’t all fit in the pot, but fit as much as you can. Add 2 cups of hot water and press down the spinach until it begins to wilt and it’s all in. Add a good amount of salt, turn the spinach over with a wooden spoon and put the lid on. Bring to a boil then turn through again. Lower the heat and simmer, covered, for about 15 minutes. If there is still water in the bottom of the pot toward the end of this time, take the lid off and turn up the heat to let it evaporate. Remove from the heat. Sprinkle with the lemon juice and add a few grinds of pepper. Turn through gently and taste for salt. Add the mint. Cover with a clean dish cloth, put the lid back on for 10 minutes to steam. Serve hot or even at room temperature.

FTC disclosure: I did not receive a free copy of this book for review. I borrowed it from the library.

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, September 9, 2013


I love how Neil Gaiman’s books find both magic and terror lurking in the most mundane places. In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, an introverted little boy finds a mystical world at a farmhouse just down a bumpy road from his house – a place of both wonder and fear. But more fabulous than the full moon that always shines on one side of the house to the little nameless boy who is the main character in the story is actually finding a friend, in the person of a strangely mature 11-year-old girl named Lettie Hempstock.

The little boy meets Lettie and the other Hempstock women when his family car is used by a tenant to commit suicide on their property. This sad act sets off a chain of events that puts the little boy, his family, Lettie Hempstock and perhaps the whole world in danger. But in the background of all the harrowing activity is the absolute calm of the Hempstock farm, where Lettie, her mother Ginnie, and grandmother Old Mrs. Hempstock live in absolute harmony with nature: where the fires are cozier, the kittens are cuddlier and the food tastes better than anyplace on earth. Which makes the juxtaposition of good and evil in this book particularly jarring.

This story certainly bears some resemblance to Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book -- but definitely at an adult level. No children’s book could deal so forthrightly with a father’s attempt to murder his own son – or that same father’s entanglement with an evil nanny. Still, Gaiman brings so much whimsy to the characters that you find yourself lulled into a false sense of security – and then startled back into remembering this is not a “warm and fuzzy” tale. For example, after one near death experience, the young boy’s mind turns to spotted dick, a favorite dessert:

I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I found joy in things that made me happy. The custard was sweet and creamy in my mouth, the dark swollen currants in the spotted dick were tangy in the cake-thick chewy blandness of the pudding, and perhaps I was going to die that night and perhaps I would never go home again, but it was a good dinner, and I had faith in Lettie Hempstock. p. 206

This is a unique story, despite the fact that the Hempstock women are reminiscent of the Fates –- life forms so old and powerful that even the Greek gods could not understand or sway them. But the similarities ended for me there. I absolutely couldn’t put this book down. I imagine many people will have this one on their R.I.P. VIII lists this year, and I don’t think they’ll be disappointed. Thanks so much to Carl V at Stainless Steel Droppings for hosting!

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive a free copy of this book for review. I borrowed the e-book from my public library.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

COOKED by Michael Pollan

Cooked by Michael Pollan has had me thinking about my food very seriously. I listened to the audiobook on a car trip the Midwest, driving through acres and acres of soybeans and corn – no doubt genetically modified, and almost all of it, apparently, meant for animals, not people. And even though it’s been almost two weeks since I finished it, I still keep going back to it as I’m wandering through the grocery store, packing my daughter’s lunch or planning our weekly dinner menu. Its implications really are that far-reaching.

The book is divided into four parts, representing both the four elements and the four food “transformations” he associates with them: fire (barbecue); water (braising); air (bread making); and earth (fermentation). The book isn’t a cookbook, although there are recipes. Rather, the book takes an ethno-biological look at human development, coming down on the side of humans not only being able to cook, but actually having developed the way we have because we cook. Seriously, you’ll never look at a loaf of store-bought bread the same way after reading this book. And that rule about hot food when traveling, especially to tropical destinations? There’s definitely a reason for that!

I have to admit, by the end of the barbecue section, I was wondering if I could ever enjoy meat (particularly pork) again – so little of it seems to be raised in the healthful way that Pollan says is possible. But my family is unwilling to give up meat completely. Luckily, we are blessed with a number of local, organic farmers in our area, and since reading the book I have been dealing with them exclusively for meat. The flavor is fantastic, but there is a definite downside. The costs are really high -- $30 for a large lamb shoulder yesterday, but I will no doubt get two meals from it. At those prices, meat will likely become a tiny portion of our weekly diet – another thing I wouldn’t call bad at all. And I’m sure Pollan wouldn’t either. I guess that’s the point.

Michael Pollan narrated the book. I liked his voice and his passion for the subject matter, which definitely comes through. But after listening, it’s easy to understand why he gets labeled an “elitist” so often. Seriously, my husband and I looked at each other blankly after he riffed for about 10 minutes on the drudgery of chopping onions. Really? That’s your big problem? You write for a living and have the time to spend a whole day perfecting your braising technique – not to mention kneading loaves of bread – and you’re complaining about chopping onions? I admit it – we just couldn’t help laughing at Pollan’s “First World” problems more than once while listening. But that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book or the importance of its message.

Many thanks to JoAnn at Lakeside Musing for her review – and for sharing this audiobook with me! We enjoyed it thoroughly – and it really made a loooong car trip far more enjoyable than it might have been.

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, September 2, 2013

THE RETURNED by Jason Mott

I should not read books about people who lose their children. It upsets me too much. Which is probably why the overwhelming emotion I felt after reading Jason Mott’s impressive and intense new novel, The Returned, was sadness, rather than the expected fear. But that’s okay, because the book was far more thought-provoking and rewarding than I had ever expected.

The premise of the novel is fantastic: What would happen if all over the world, the dead just decided not to be dead anymore? What if the people you’d loved and lost and grieved over most suddenly appeared at your door, in the same state as the last time you’d been with them? Would you welcome them home with open arms? Would you question their motives for returning – or even whether or not they were who they said they were? And what would the returned do, without homes and jobs and all the other things that the passage of time would have taken from them?

The novel begins with Harold and Lucille Hargrave facing that question exactly: their only son, lost in a drowning accident some 50 years ago when he was 8-years-old, is returned to their home by a federal agent after “returning” from death somewhere in China. (I have still not figured out the China angle– there wasn’t enough information to tell me whether or not Mott is making some claim about weird, super power science robbing the graves of their inhabitants. So that thread was a total loss for me.) Harold and Lucille immediately take him in, although they disagree about whether or not he is actually their son, or something else altogether. But what they don’t realize at the beginning is the absolute havoc the returning dead will wreak on their small Mississippi community – and the world in general.

At one point, Lucille spars with former friends from her town who have joined the anti-returned movement:

“I just want to know what your demands are, is all. All sit-ins have demands! You have to ask for something when you organize like this.” A soldier bumped into her by accident. He paused to apologize, then she continued on. “You’ve succeeded in disrupting things,“ Lucille said to Fred. “That’s plain. But what’s next? What’s your platform? What are you standing for?”

Fred’s eyes went full of light. He sat erect in his chair and inhaled a deep, dramatic breath. The other men followed his lead and sat straight as tombstones. “We stand for the living,” Fred said in a flat, even voice.

It was the slogan of the True Living Movement – those fools that Lucille and Harold had watched on television that day so long ago. The ones who’d gone from promises of race wars to full-on racial integration since the Returned. And now there was Fred quoting them.

Without a doubt, Lucille thought, nut jobbery was afoot. p. 179

Mott’s novel touches so many chords – about jealousy, about difference, about loss and forgiveness. But to my mind, it perfectly crystallizes the tragic circumstances faced by refugees around the globe. In fact, it is a meditation on the human ability to live far beyond what endurance should allow – and the aftermath of living outside the normal order of things. Left without their past lives, these refugees appear in a place that seems hospitable at first, is empathetic and even caring in the abstract – but becomes dangerous when the newcomers begin to impact and change the inhabitant’s previously ordered world. This book about returning dead, which I originally thought of as a creepy tale, really made me think about the plight of the Tamils and the Syrians and all the other groups of people who are forced from where they belong, and then must hope for the best from the places they wander into. How difficult it is to remake a life?

This book was very powerful, but I wouldn’t really call it scary, which was what I expected from the description. Still, the returning dead seem to make it a natural for the R.I.P. VIII Challenge – there’s plenty of suspense. And maybe others will see it as more “perilous” than I did. If the main story line hadn’t revolved around a lost child, it might have been a different story for me as well. 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, which is what you’ve got here. Thanks as always to Lisa for including me on the tour. For other opinions on this title, check the links here.