Thursday, December 31, 2015

Brushing up

I've been brushing up an old skill lately--namely contorting my body into the physical position that allows me to knit and read at the same time. The first few times I tried recently to revive this skill my right hand fell asleep. Then I encountered a new challenge as the 55 lb dog climbed in my lap (she's a heat seeking missile) and complicated things. I had to try and prop the book on her head and not poke her with a needle. But I finally got the hang of it and so was able to finish a sweater and read a really good YA novel. And the dog got a lot of loving.

You'd think that my knitting would have picked up because of the lovely new yarn shop that opened in town (and where I occasionally work). Spun has beautiful yarns and is an inspiring place to spend some time and satisfy the fiber cravings. But Fiona requested that I knit her this sweater in mid-November and Spun didn't open until December 1st.

Owls by Kate Davies knit in Lion Brand Chunky Wool-Ease in Silver Gray. 
And look--the pre-teen is smiling! That's pretty notable these days...

The significance of her asking me to knit for her cannot be understated since she has pretty much refused my offers of knitwear for the past few years (though she will occasionally still wear the fish hats that I made.) I didn't want her to change her mind so I rushed out and bought yarn at the big box craft store and cranked this baby out in washable acrylic/wool mix. (If I'd been a bit more patient and waited for Spun to open, I probably would have still bought an acrylic mix--like the affordable and soft Berroco Comfort Chunky that Spun carries--because my kids are crap at taking care of their clothes and I fully expect to find this sweater crushed in a corner under Fiona's premium fibers for them until they learn that a sweater is not a dust rag.) The pattern was easy and speedy and fun to knit. There are only two tiny seams to sew up at the end, but there are 36 (damn) buttons to sew on for the owl's eyes.

And the book I read while knitting the end of the sweater is this one:

I loved Patrick Ness's previous books, particularly The Knife of Never Letting Go, and loved this one, too. The Rest of Us Just Live Here has a clever concept that, with a different author, could have been irritating. The beginning of each chapter has a brief summary of a parallel tale--one that will be familiar to YA readers (particular fun is poked at Twilight with numerous references to vampires, but the same could be said for Harry Potter.) Pretty much any novel that has a "chosen one" aspect and some form of paranormal activity is referenced in these brief bursts. Then the rest of the chapter shifts to four (mostly) normal kids and what it is like to witness weird stuff happening but be more focused on real world problems like family dynamics, crushes, what comes after high school and particular mental challenges. The main character, Mikey, suffers from OCD and his struggles with it make for some really poignant writing which Ness manages to make more interesting that the weird blue light and enchanted deer that keep appearing in the background and that are the problems of the chosen ones (not our main characters.) The satire never dominates but is gentle and appreciative and eventually does end up intertwining with the paths of the four main characters. It was a really lovely read and one which I couldn't predict what would happen which was a welcome change from a lot of the recent YA fiction I've read.

And now I need to go do some yoga stretches to straighten out my posture before contorting again for the next yarn/book project!

Monday, November 16, 2015

This is what I'm bringing to Thanksgiving....

...because it isn't f***ing beige.

It also tastes great.  Crunchy, spicy, sweet and salty--it hits pretty much all of my happy tongue spots and is the antithesis of mashed potatoes, stuffing and turkey.  If you are a lover of Thanksgiving foods, then don't make this. Or at least, don't make it for Thanksgiving. If, like me, you dread the festival of beige, bland foods and yet have to do most of the cooking for it because you love people who love it, then do yourself a favor and slip this onto the sideboard. Most people will ignore it which is great because then there's MORE FOR YOU!

I plan to load my plate with this, the spicy cranberry relish that my sister introduced me to years ago that has kept me sane at every following Thanksgiving, and some roasted potatoes. This will also mean I will have plenty of room for apple pie (which is one beige food in the Thanksgiving spread of which I heartily approve).

Cabbage, feta, date salad
adapted from this recipe on Smitten Kitchen

  • 1/2 of a medium head of red cabbage, sliced thin on a mandoline if possible (or use a very sharp knife)
  • 1/2 C chopped Italian parsley
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 -3 T olive oil
  • 1 T pomegranate molasses
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 t sumac (can skip this if you don't have any, but it gives an extra sharp burst of flavor that complements the lemon)
  • 1 T of Aleppo Pepper flakes (use only 1 t or less of regular old crushed red peppers. Aleppo Pepper is milder and wonderfully addictive and you can order it online pretty easily these days.)
  • about a 1/2 C dates, sliced lengthwise into halves and then crosswise into thin half circles
  • about 1/2 C crumbled feta
  • 1 T toasted sesame seeds

In a large bowl, toss together the cabbage, parsley, lemon juice, olive oil, pomegranate molasses, sumac, salt and peppers. Taste for seasoning and adjust for how you like it. Then gently toss in the dates and feta and sprinkle with the sesame seeds. Can be left at room temp to wilt a little or popped in the fridge if you like your cabbage crunchier.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Salmon, two ways

The big revelation this summer is that my kids will eat salmon. I had assumed that the two humans whose eating habits so frustrated me at one point in time that I started a (now dormant) blog about them called The Picky Eater Chronicles would reject salmon simply because they somehow intuited that kids don't like fish (believe me, that would have been one of their more rational reasons for rejecting a food).

And because I love fish but lack confidence when cooking fish--I often order it in restaurants, but have found my own attempts making fish lackluster--I just stuck with canned tuna and omega 3 fish oil pills to get some of that good fat into all of us.

But one day in June I was in Costco and I cast my eye longingly over the seafood case, trying to figure out when I'd be able to go out to some restaurant and order fish. The wild caught salmon in particular was so beautiful and orange and fresh looking. So finally, I just said, fuck it and chucked a tray in the cart. Of course, this being Costco, it was a big tray with two full long fillets, enough fish for 8-10 people depending on hunger and portion size.

When I got home, I was pretty motivated to figure out how to cook it since I had just spent $28 on food I wasn't sure anyone would eat.  I can't remember where I found the super basic technique, probably by googling "idiotically easy salmon recipe" or something like that, but I found something that has worked well beyond my wildest dreams and I now make over and over and over.

I take the filet, pat it dry with paper towels. Cut it into portions and sprinkle the non-skin side with salt and pepper. Then I heat up a ceramic non-stick pan* until it is pretty hot, put in a couple of teaspoons of neutral high smoke-point oil (like canola), and then slap in the salmon, skin side down.

Then, this is one of the best parts, I walk away and go do something else in the kitchen for about 3-5 minutes (depending on the thickness of the filet). Don't poke or nudge or bother that fish! After 3-5 minutes, the skin has crisped up and a spatula slides right under it. Flip it over and leave it alone again for 3-5 minutes.
On the cut side, you can see the center of the fish start to turn opaque and use that to decide how long you want to cook it. Put it on a plate and, hot diggity, your main protein source is cooked and ready in less than 10 minutes.

So what happened when I put this down in front of the kids? Not one bit of drama. I'm slowly learning to shut the hell up so I just placed it in front of them and when they asked what it was, I said, "Salmon." That's it. Nothing more--no explaining, no preface about how salmon is mild and since they like tuna I thought I'd try this, no begging them to just try a bite.  And then my husband did something truly wonderful: he pulled off the crispy skin, popped it in his mouth and said, "Yum. Tastes like chicken skin."

Those are magic words in my house. If not watched carefully, my daughter will strip a roast chicken (or for god's sake, once at Thanksgiving, half of a turkey) of the skin and munch on it like potato chips.

And now she does that with salmon skin, too (!!)

That first night I served the salmon plain, just a squeeze of lemon on the grown ups' portions, and it was so good. Since then I've been buying wild salmon pretty much every time I go to Costco, about once every two weeks, and we eat it two nights in a row. I've also gotten better at figuring out interesting stuff to put on top of it: the cucumber yogurt sauce that I usually serve with kibbeh, the miso/ginger dressing from the baby bok choi recipe, some defrosted garlic scape pesto, all were really good and took the salmon in different directions. And best of all, the saucy stuff can be left off of the kid portions and I don't have to cook theirs separately (they still only want it plain, plain plain plain plain, thank you very much.)

Here is what this weeks two salmon dinners looked like:

Last night the salmon was topped with lime juice and a little lime zest, served with a corn, red pepper, radish, cilantro, red onion salad (which could have easily gone on top like a salsa, except I made so much of it--hey, it's corn season--that it would have buried the salmon), and a few slices of baguette.

Tonight's dinner looked like this:
Salmon and sesame noodles topped with a riff on David Chang's Momfuku ginger scallion sauce (recipe below), served with a Korean spinach and bean sprout salad and a nice glass of chilled Provencal rose.

By contrast here is what the kid-version of dinner looked like:

Plain salmon, plain sesame noodles, plain spinach, a plain sliced ginger gold apple and plain milk. Detect a pattern here? Oh my god they are the most boring eaters on the planet.

I enjoyed both dinners and even more, I loved the fact that both were fast to make and I got to eat them with no sour expressions, no kvetching, and no people sitting next to me sullenly poking at their food until it had disintegrated into an unrecognizable mush.

Ginger Scallion Sauce
adapted from David Chang's and Peter Meehan's recipe 
My version is a bit saucier than the original and I cut the quantity of scallions and ginger in half since there are only two of us who eat it in this household. It still makes plenty and is great for adding to things like leftover rotisserie chicken or, as Chang recommends, a big bowl of cheapo ramen noodles.

1 and 1/4 C thin sliced scallions
1/4 C fine minced fresh ginger, peeled before chopping
2 t sherry vinegar
2 t hoisin sauce
2 t (or more) tamari 
1/2 t kosher salt
fresh ground black pepper

Mix everything together in a bowl and let sit for at least 20-30 minutes. Any left over can be refrigerated and kept for a few days.
*I love this thing. It's a T-fal ceramic non-stick that I got for about $20 at TJ Maxx and it works like a dream. The best thing for keeping it non-stick is to run a Mr Clean Magic Eraser over the surface after washing to get off any sticky oil blobs that resist scrubbing.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Winter break

I don't know about you, but I am heartily sick of roasted vegetables at this point in the winter. Roasted cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, regular potatoes, parsnips, carrots, I could go on and on. I welcomed them when they first appeared in the autumn and happily consumed them with the roasted garlic, lemon juice and zest, black pepper and grated parmesan which works on just about any vegetable to make it taste great.

But I've had enough. Maybe it was the 14.1 inches of snow that fell a few weeks ago, or the heavy gray skies, or the stir crazy feeling of being inside too much because the windchill makes my face feel like it's going to fall off. It isn't fair to the roasted vegetables, but they are getting lumped in with everything wintery that I'm sick of (along with hot chocolate, hearty soup, fires in the fireplace, cozy wool sweaters and other things that were pleasant when they first appeared but have outlived their welcome.)

Rather than purchase disappointing tomatoes and other summer vegetables, I hit the Asian grocery store. Yesterday I picked up a massive bag of baby bok choi. They looked so alive and promising and like the antithesis of cauliflower.

But then I got home and realized I don't really have any recipes for baby bok choi. I usually chuck one or two into a bowl of udon, but I'd be eating udon every hour if I wanted to get through all these before they spoiled. (Besides udon is soup which, as I mentioned above, I'm pretty sick of.)  Also, to compound the challenge, Brian is out of town and my kids don't like bok choi (maybe because they've only been served it limp in udon...) so I needed a recipe that could use up a lot of it and that was tasty enough that I'd want to eat it all.

Happily I can report success! I found a recipe in Fine Cooking that consists of basic sautéed baby bok choi that gets interesting by being doused in a warm miso ginger vinaigrette. It is bright and zippy and crunchy and fresh and an excellent antidote to the frozen dingy piles of snow outside. For lunch today I ate 1/3 of the big bag of baby bok choi that I'd purchased and can easily see replicating this again in the coming days.  Did I mention that it was fast and easy? It is. Next time I'll probably put it on top of some brown rice and add a little cubed firm tofu in with the bok choi, but it was excellent on its own too.

Baby Bok Choi with Miso Ginger Dressing
(very loosely based on a recipe from Fine Cooking issue #127 because I didn't measure anything)

baby bok choi (as many as you want to eat)
some neutral oil
a clove of garlic
a small nob of ginger
miso (I used white but any kind will do)
a lime (if you have it)
rice vinegar (or white wine vinegar)
Sriracha or your favorite hot sauce
sesame oil

Cut the baby bok choi in half.
Chop up the garlic and ginger.

Get a big skillet or wok to saute the bok choi and a little skillet for the miso vinaigrette. Pour a little oil into each and turn on the heat. When hot, toss the bok choi in the big skillet and the ginger and garlic in the small one. After about a minute, turn the heat off under the small skillet and plop in a spoonful of miso and a glug of mirin. Use a whisk to blend the miso and mirin until there aren't any lumps of miso. Then add a little vinegar and whisk again (meanwhile you are occasionally tossing the baby bok choi with a pair of tongs.) Squeeze in half a lime (if you have it) and whisk again. Put in a squirt of sriracha, whisk and then give it a taste. Do you want it sweeter? Add a little more mirin. More acidic? Add a little more lime or rice vinegar. Saltier? A little more miso. Once it tastes good to you, add a little bit of sesame oil, dump the baby bok choi (which have wilted but are still crunchy at the base) onto a plate or serving platter (if you plan to share) and then pour the vinaigrette over the top. Cooking time total was about 5 minutes; tack on a few more for prep and you can have a plate of these sitting in front of you in about 10 minutes--faster than takeout!

Relish that this tastes nothing like winter.

Monday, September 08, 2014

A well-stocked request list helps me feel secure

I'm feeling a level of mental contentment that is due primarily to the state of my library request list. It is stocked with lots of juicy books that will keep me content at least until early December, maybe even longer for the books that have really long wait lists. My whole family should be breathing a sigh of relief because they know that I am a nicer person to be around when I have good reading material to soothe me. What with the oldest critter starting High School (and come to think of it, now that he's taller than me, I probably should come up with a term more apt to describe him than "critter."  Maybe "great galumphing creature"?) and all of us adapting to lots of new situations and schedules, I need all the soothing I can get.

Thankfully the publishing industry seems to have anticipated my need because there are lots of terrific sounding books that have just come out, many of which I have requested and one which I bought.

I bought and started David Mitchell's latest, The Bone Clocks (and oh my god it is already so good).  I know I'll want to re-read it, so I went ahead and bought it rather than patiently waiting for a library copy. I have even cleared a bit of shelf space for its future home next to Black Swan Green, Ghostwritten, Number9Dream and Cloud Atlas.

Here are some highlights of books that I'm looking forward to:

Tigerman by Nick Harkaway. I loved his book The Gone Away World.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson. Return to the world of Gilead? Yes please!

Some Luck by Jane Smiley. Sometimes I love Jane Smiley (The Greenlanders, A Thousand Acres) and sometimes not so much (Moo, Horse Heaven), but I always look forward to seeing what she's up to.

Lock In by John Scalzi. Time for some fun sci-fi to keep me from going into literary fiction overload.

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom. Her books don't always stick with me, but I do enjoy the process of reading them.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I've read/heard a few reviews of this book and it sounds fascinating--speculative and fantastical.

Sweetness #9 by Stephan Eirik Clark. I heard a Fresh Air interview of the author and the book sounds interesting.

Elephant Company by Vicki Croke. A little non-fiction history to keep me grounded.

Are there any new releases that you are eagerly anticipating? Send the titles my way and I'll add them to my (extensive) request list!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

England: Food

How much has food changed in England? I'm sure everyone already knows this but I can report from the ground: a whole bloody lot. My childhood visits were spent pushing bits of overcooked lamb and boiled cabbage around my plate and living off of the roasted potatoes (dinner), whole grain toast and bacon (breakfast), and dark chocolate digestive biscuits and good milk with cream floating on the top (all times of the day) that were thankfully plentiful. When I got older and began eating out in England, rather than just being fed by relatives, I suffered two intense bouts of food poisoning that I will never forget (I don't remember much about my aunt's flat in Wimbledon, but I can picture her bathroom floor very well since I was curled up there for a good 24 hours...)

But nothing of the kind now days. Not only did I not fear for myself or my family food safety wise, there was uniformly accessible and decent food nearly everywhere we went.

We ate amazing Indian take-away in the small Yorkshire village of Helmsley, where we were staying. I had steeled myself for disappointment but Helmsley Spice came through with flying colors. Sorry I didn't take a photo of it--I was too surprised by the quality of what we got and was greedily filling my plate, particularly with all the varied vegetable side dishes that we ordered.

We had some amazing fish and chips up in Whitby:

My haddock was almost still flopping on the plate it was so fresh. The restaurant even posted the variety of potatoes that were being fried up that day and the farm from which they originated.

Brian was very happy about the good beer that was available pretty much anytime of day or night. We even managed to make it to the Black Sheep Brewery, though we were too late to get a tour. We did manage sample all their wares and have a really nice meal in their restaurant.

We did a good amount of self-catering since we were in rentals with kitchens almost the whole trip. So we followed this butcher's suggestion and had lots of bangers for breakfasts. All the eggs that we purchased at even the most basic grocery stores were free range and had beautiful school-bus yellow-orange yolks.

I present the next category of food with an appreciation and a complaint: We are so, so, so sick of sandwiches.  I'm talking about the convenient, prepack sandwiches that are everywhere in England and are so inexpensive and really pretty decent that you pick them up just to make sure that no-one's blood sugar gets to a compromisingly low level. And then you end up eating sandwiches pretty much everyday and come home sick to death of them. There's a huge selection of sandwiches including egg and cress, ham-cheddar-pickle, prawn mayonnaise, smoked salmon with tomato and cucumber and curry chicken salad that goes by the name coronation chicken. There are also some crazy one's like the example pictured below:

That's the "All Day Breakfast": cooked egg, bacon, bangers (sliced lengthwise) and a smear of ketchup on multi-grain bread for less than 2 pounds. No idea how it tasted (Brian ate it and he remained functional.) Honestly, I'd be thrilled to have prepack sandwiches of this quality and variety available here for when you're on the run and just too damn busy to think about food. But the problem was that they were too decent and too cheap to pass up so we ate too damn many of them.

We only had one truly lousy English meal the whole time! And frankly, I didn't mind it much because it made me feel like I was visiting the England of my youth in which this type of meal was pretty much served by each of my relatives when we came to visit.  The nostalgia factor was upped for me since it was in the pub (aka the local) that is a stumble away from my grandmother's old house in Ingleby Greenhow.

That's where Granny lived: The Old Vicarage. The present owner was kind enough to show us around a bit and he's done wonderful things with the place including such innovations as central heating.

I have no photo of the actual meal because, really, who wants to look at overcooked beef in a puddle of Bisto gravy served alongside carrots and sugar snap peas that have been boiled to death? There was a decent desert of apple sultana tart served with its own little pitcher of (Bird's) custard. I will give you a few photos of the charming pub in which the mediocre meal was served.

The Dudley Arms has a hedgehog on a leash as a part of their coat of arms. No idea why the latin translates into "Whither Destiny Takes Me" and which is also the motto of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers.

And here's the bar.

I didn't have any fantastic meals in London, though I know there are plenty to be had. I was traveling with my two suspicious eaters and, as previously mentioned, we were in self-catering accommodations nearly the whole time which saved us loads of money and reduced the stress levels considerably. Eating out when everyone is hungry, tired and grumpy is not something I enjoy--I'd rather stay in, eat boring-ish food and have everyone be nice to each other. It used to be really difficult for me to separate my love of food and my love of exploring the food of a different place from my expectations of what kind of travel is actually enjoyable with my family. Thankfully, now that particular-eater-#1 is 14 and particular-eater-#2 is 11 I seem to have finally stopped expecting food to be interesting on family trips. It's sort of sad, in a way, to give up the fight. But it is also a relief.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Summer Vegetables--an appreciation

I interrupt my blathering-about-England posts to share my present appreciation for summer vegetables. It is possible that my present status at day 13 of a 16-day solo parenting-in-the-summertime adventure has warped my perceptions (I have no idea how single parents--especially those with sole custody--do it, particularly not with a teenager who is riding the roller coaster of hormonally induced emotion.). I've hardly spoken to an adult face-to-face in the past two weeks, other than my son's piano teacher and the farmers at the farmers's market. So yes, I got a little weepy today when my son played "In a Sentimental Mood" (which he played this Spring and I had assumed he had already forgotten--such a beautiful, gentle piece and such a surprise when most of this week has been "I'll play the damn B flat, E flat and A flat scales and their related minors but I'll make sure you know that I am not enjoying it!" Who knew that piano scales could be such an effective way to communicate rage?) And the tears welled up again in gratitude when I sat down to this lovely plate of summer vegetables with accoutrements for dinner.

It isn't a fancy meal but it made me very, very happy. It's just kale, new carrots, corn and an allium of your choice (this time, a shallot), sautéed up and then splashed with sherry vinegar. But this simple preparation brings out the minty-sweetness of the carrots, the bright pops of the corn and the sturdy earthiness of the kale in a way that keeps me grounded. This is the third time this week that I ate it--that's what happens when you buy a big bunch of Tuscan kale and another huge bunch of new carrots at the farmer's market and you are only cooking for one (the girl critter will eat some of the carrots raw, but not cooked.) It's quite a lot of kale and carrots for one person to go through, but thankfully, I am happy to eat this combination until it is all gone (two or maybe three more meals, I'm thinking.)

Here's the general formula for the vegetable sauté (in per-person quantities. If you are lucky enough to be cooking for more than just yourself, then adjust quantities accordingly):

Take one large shallot, or about a quarter of a medium sized red onion, and slice it up. Sauté in some olive oil and then chuck in a good handful of new carrots that you've scrubbed and then halved or quartered lengthwise. Keep the heat at about medium and stir them occasionally while you cut the kernels off a cob of sweet corn and wash, stem and shred coarsely about five large Tuscan kale leaves. Sprinkle the carrots and shallots (or red onions) with a little salt and pepper and some chopped up fresh thyme if you have it (and don't worry if you don't), then put in the de-cobified corn. Give it another stir and go slice yourself some baguette. Then dump in the shredded kale, stir again and go decorate your baguette (I went with goat cheese on two slices and sharp cheddar on the other two). Drizzle about 1T of sherry vinegar over the kale and stir. Go arrange the baguette and some olives on your plate.  Pour yourself a glass of red wine because God knows you are going to need it to get through this evening's emotional antics once they inevitably arise when you are too tired to think. Then stir the kale and give it a taste--add more vinegar, salt and pepper to taste. When the carrots are tender crisp and the kale has softened, pile it all on the plate and go hide in a quiet place and enjoy the taste of summer.

Monday, July 14, 2014

England: books

Not surprisingly I read some books while in England. This trip was a first for me, in that I travelled with my Nook and only brought electronic copies (and downloaded the Nook app for my ipod so I could share the Nook with the other voracious reader in the family). I still don't like reading ebooks as much as a physical book, but for travel it certainly is convenient. It also helps that through our library you can borrow up to 10 books so I borrowed four of the Harry Potter books for the girl critter (who cannot be separated from them for more than a day without getting squirrely) and thus managed to reduce the weight of our baggage by about 25 lbs.


Hild by Nicola Griffith

I know I very recently blathered at some length about how wonderful Hild is, but now I love it even more.

It was a magical experience to reread this and then visit the ruins of Whitby Abbey. Hild was the first Abbess of Whitby Abbey (though that part of her life will be covered, presumably, in the sequel). It was thrilling to listen to the audio guide for the Abbey and hear about Hild--I completely ignored my family for once and just wandered off on my own to imagine the amazing fictional character that Griffith created merging with the amazing historical figure of the real Hild.  

The book also helped my appreciation of much more than the visit to Whitby. The whole time we were in Yorkshire I felt more connected to the natural environment thanks to Griffith's beautiful prose. Whether it was Brian (thank god, not me) driving down the tiny lanes edged by hedgerows packed full of wildflowers, brambles and pheasants, or coming upon a tree in a village that housed vocal rooks, jackdaws and songbirds, or hiking on the moors in the springy heather and bracken, all of it felt heightened and even more special because of this novel.

A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge

Why is this book only available in the US as an ebook? Grrrr. I was under the impression that Fly by Night  had sold pretty well but apparently not well enough to publish this book in the US. I was happy to buy it as an ebook to bring with me, but I'd really like a hard copy to keep on my shelf and to loan out to other people.  

Frances Hardinge makes creativity look effortless--she never over-explains the weird and wonderful worlds she creates. They just are, and soon after being introduced to wines that can alter memories and cheeses that can make you hallucinate (and which occasionally explode so forcefully that they kill people and collapse tunnels) you completely believe in this magical (and dangerous) world. I loved how earnest and flawed and funny and true her 12 year-old main character, Neverfell, was and I'm looking forward to reading this aloud to the girl-critter who has a great appreciation for the weird.


Horrible Histories

My kids had read one of the books in this series before we left, but they aren't easy to come by in the US. You can get Kindle and Nook ebooks or buy the hard copies from Scholastic's website but our library and local bookshops don't carry them (we used interlibrary loan for the one hard copy we read before our trip). But they are very popular in the UK with the books supplemented by tv and stage showsonline games and even toy tie-ins. They're silly and engaging and (obviously) focus on the sensational aspects of history, but they are a good follow up to the serious stuff and we had plenty of that when we went to actual historical sites.

We bought three of these books at various gift shops and the critters' really loved them. At Whitby Abbey we purchased the general Horrible Histories England book.

After touring the Churchill War Rooms (very cool underground bunker right in Westminster next to St James's Park that was abandoned after WWII right down to the tea mugs on people's desks) we bought the Woeful Second World War book:
My kids also got my mom's memories to supplement the goofier stuff in this book. She was born in London in 1941 during the blitz. While most of her recollections are of post-war austerity-era England, some members of my family have been known to have a spooky recall of early childhood (not me--my sister has it, and so, it appears, does my girl-critter). In my mother's case some of her memories extend back to WWII when her mother cooked over an open coal fire in one house where they lived that didn't have a stove and her father's fingernails fell off from the research he was doing with radioactive materials (which they kept down a well).  He was a chemist and they were trying to design a glow-in-the-dark paint that could be seen by a pilot in his cockpit, but wasn't bright enough for an enemy plane to spot if they were flying overhead. Fingernails falling out will get any kids' attention and linked nicely with some of the Horrible Histories episodes.

After touring Shakespeare's Globe Theater (and getting to see a rehearsal of the stabby scene of Julius Ceasar) we bought Wicked Words:

The boy-critter and I are starting to study Romeo and Juliet together this summer in preparation for high school and any little bit of making Shakespeare accessible helps. We started watching a video of R & J and at one point he paused it, ran out of the room and went and got this book, so that seems like a good sign.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

The last book I'm going to mention has nothing to do with England, but it was a wonderful traveling companion.  Anthony Doerr follows up his amazing collection of short stories, Memory Wall, with this beautiful novel that follows two children: blind, French Marie-Laure, and orphaned German, Werner. The story alternates their point of view and slowly, over the course of the book, brings them into each other's orbit. The structure of the plot is very clear so I'm not giving anything away to say that their stories merge near the end of the book, at the occupation and destruction of Saint Malo in 1944. There are wonderful supporting characters who are full of complexity and tenderness, even in the most brutal of environments. I sincerely mourned many of them when they left the story.  It's a beautiful read, and I'm thinking that maybe an exploration of the coast of Northern France would be a terrific family trip to start dreaming about. If we can pull that off, I'm sure I'll be rereading this book.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

England: Yorkshire

A week ago, we returned from a two-week long family trip to England: Yorkshire, Cambridge and London, to be more specific. I'm breaking this down into a series of posts so I have an excuse to upload and share some of my approximately 400 photos without boring people to tears.

This post covers some of our favorite things from the week we spent in Yorkshire. 

First, here's a crazy, beautiful panoramic view that Brian took from the peak of Roseberry Topping in Yorkshire. (Click on the photo to make it big.) My granny used to hike us up to the top of this place every time we came to visit and always pulled out an apple and a bar of chocolate that she had somehow secreted up there without us noticing. My mom, the kids and I are the little cluster of humanity near the left edge and the ocean is just viewable in the distance at the center. Yes, the sky was really that crazy shade of blue. 

We stayed in a nice little village called Helmsley, which is at the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors, about 45 minutes from both York and the ocean, has a terrific ruined castle (named aptly Helmsley Castle) and is about a 2 mile hike from my favorite ruin to explore, Rievaulx Abbey. The kids were in heaven there--the boy critter listened intently to the entire audio guide and the girl-critter was thrilled to discover that you can climb all over ruins in England and no one will tell you to get the hell down or not to touch. It's weirdly different from their attitude toward grass in Cambridge where no one can step on the velvety stuff. But if you want to clamber around on a medieval ruin, go right ahead! 

We visited the village, Ingleby Greenhow, where my granny used to live and went in the little church where her ashes are buried.

There we found a listing of the clergy from the founding of the church in 1189. Apparently the first one was named Reiner and came from Whitby Abbey.

The girl-critter had fun taking pictures of sheep, including this poor fellow who had been half-sheared and was wandering on the village green in Goathland :

 Goathland is also the train station which stood in for Hogsmede in the Harry Potter films:

We went for a hike up on the moors there and had more wooly encounters.

We spent an afternoon poking through tidal pools at Robin Hood's Bay (which is a really beautiful little town, tucked away into the cliffs and is the end point, or starting point, of the coast to coast walk.) There we spotted a teeny tiny flounder,

sea anemones, limpets, barnacles and loads of little hermit crabs.

We also enjoyed exploring in Whitby and York, though I won't bore you with the photos. Instead I'll show you a few of the photos we took of signs that struck the girl-critter as funny. Here are a few favorites:

(I'm not sure if you can read the sign, but this is a restaurant named "the slug and lettuce.")

There's more to share about Yorkshire, but I'll save some of it for upcoming posts about food, books, London and maybe a few other things!

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Somewhat lacking in photos

I blame the raspberries in gin.

My book group met last week and I had my camera long enough to photograph the appetizer and drink and then I misplaced the camera...

The book we were celebrating was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah. It was my second time reading it and, unlike some re-reads, I enjoyed it just as much as the first time I read it, a few short months ago.

Here's the one photo I managed to take:
That's some tasty beef suya in the foreground and you can see the dregs of the sparkling water mixed with raspberries in gin in the background. The recipe for the suya can be found here.

The rest of the meal was also pretty terrific. I made a chicken, peanut and yam stew, there was jollof rice, fried plantains with garlic and cilantro, a salad with avocado and grapefruit and a wonderful desert of coconut vanilla panna cotta with mango lime sauce accompanied by coconut tuilles. I wish I had a photo of the desert in particular because it was so wonderful--rich without being heavy and almost like eating a cloud. But you can find it here along with the recipe. I'm thinking that panna cotta will be great with raspberries or strawberries once they are in season.