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.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Books books books

It has been a while since I've written about books but that isn't because I haven't been reading anything worthy. I've just been lazy about putting my thoughts together. So without further ado, here are four books that I recently read and loved, for wildly different reasons.

 Hild by Nicola Griffith
This was a really gratifying read, though not an easy one. I had sticky notes marking maps of 7th C Britain, lineage charts, glossary and pronunciation guides. But I loved this story of Hild, the Angle king's seer. It may have helped that I felt a connection to the location--it's set in what is mostly present day Yorkshire--because my grandmother lived in a town called Ingleby greenhow (which translates to Angles by the Green Hill), so I could superimpose my memories of the landscape onto the text. What stood out for me in Griffith's writing was the incredible vividness of the natural world--plants, birds, animals, weather, rocks--it all was so detailed and rich in this book, particularly tastes, smells and sounds (which I think are much harder to capture via the written word than visual descriptions). Here's a sample:

"She walked in the evening through her domain, as aware of it as of her own body. The dragonflies and damselflies zooming over the water; the gush and rush and mineral bit of the millrace compared to the softer babble of the beck. The clatter of reeds by the pond scented with green secrets; the chatter of wrens and goldcrest flocks, squabbling with each other like rival gangs of children." p.482 

There are descriptions like this on pretty much every other page which made me slow down and read with all my senses. I'm looking forward to the next installment of Hild's life.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
This is an amazing first novel about the wars in Chechnya. It feels particularly relevant with the present Russian crap going on in Crimea--another place that I find hard to picture. But after reading this book, I have a far better understanding of what happened in a part of the world not far from today's conflict. 

The ending was perhaps a little bit tidy as far as tying the different story lines together, but the novel was forceful in its humanism and the author so clearly loved his characters that I found the decision to be understandable. 

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee
This novel is a really interesting distopia (for grownups!) It takes present economic conditions (increasing disparity between haves and have nots) and extends them to their extremes. Then the author plops down an unshakeable every-woman character to experience all three economic models that are depicted. It's told in a compelling "group" voice using "we" as the main pronoun and makes the journey of the main-character into something mythic. I've read some reviews where people were bugged by this voice, but I was charmed by it. I've found myself thinking of this book as I read stories in the news about civil unrest, the environment and clashing political systems and wonder what the future will look like.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Wow, what a voice! This novel blew me away (and that sentiment seems pretty universal since it won the National Book Award). The story and the language it is told in manages to be poetic and ribald and funny and poignant, all at the same time. Here's a little taste:

"The Old Man was a lunatic, but he was a good, kind lunatic, and he couldn't no more be a sane man in his transactions with his fellow white man than you and I can bark like a dog, for he didn't speak their language. He was a Bible man. A God man. Crazy as a bedbug. Pure to the truth, which will drive any man off his rocker. But at least he knowed he was crazy. At least he knowed who he was." p.343

I had a hard time reading the last 75 or so pages because the sense of loss for the Old Man was so intense that I didn't want to experience it. But when I steeled myself and dove in, it was worth it--a beautiful, funny, sad goodbye to such a memorable character.  

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Mindfulness w/Kids

And now for a detour from my regular obsessions with food, books and the like for a brief update in the parenting department.

I recently posted a link on facebook about a film that the Michigan Collaboration for Mindfulness in Education will be showing on April 26th, "Room to Breathe." The film is about about a mindfulness program at a San Francisco public middle school and my son and I have bought our tickets and are going to the showing. We started mindfulness practice last summer and do it regularly. I credit it with his having the best school year ever and for both of us feeling better able to manage stress, bounce back from intense emotions and deal with difficult people and situations. As a mom, I also like the connection it establishes with my 13-year old*: it makes me feel like we'll be better able to navigate the storms of adolescence together and constructively.  After the facebook post, I received a number of questions from people and while I'm no expert on mindfulness, it sounds like people are interested and want to know what has worked for us. So I'm going to share some of what I've found here so those people who are interested might have a few shortcuts if they want to try and establish a practice with their kids.

There are a whole lot of books out there about the benefits of mindfulness and why you should do it. I've read some of them and found some helpful and if you know nothing about the reasoning behind mindfulness, then it might be good to pick up a few. Our library has a ton of books that you can check out. Thich Nat Hanh, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Pema Chodron are all good authors to try and see if what they say resonates. Or, if you prefer to listen to your information rather than read it, NPR has had lots of coverage about practicing mindfulness for everything from depression, to blood pressure control, to developing better business management skills. There are also lots of podcasts that you can subscribe to that discuss aspects of mindfulness. I like Zencast and Audio Dharma--you can listen to or download the episodes at the previous links, or subscribe to them in iTunes. Last summer when I was painting the exterior of our house I listened to many hours of talks by Andrea Fella, Gil Fronsdal and Jack Kornfield on various aspects of mindfulness.**

When it comes to actual practice, both my son and I like guided meditations and the occasional spoken affirmation. Maybe when we're better at it, we'll be able to meditate on our own without any recordings, but we aren't there yet. I am better able to calm my thoughts during the day when they get stormy without the use of a recording, but I still prefer to have a guide when we sit down to meditate. I've learned that there are lots of different options out there and not all will suit all people. My son and I have clear preferences for certain voices: there have been some meditations where we like the content, but don't like the speaker's voice. Some meditations have new-age music in the background and both of us prefer meditations that don't have music. But other people may have entirely different preferences--try a bunch and figure out what you like and what you don't.

Here are some resources/things I've found:

  • The iTunes U series of Mindful Meditations is terrific (and free!). I feel lucky that we started with these meditations--we like Diana Winston's voice, there isn't any new age music that bugs both of us, and they aren't too long. Neither Ian nor I has the ability to meditate for more than about 25 minutes and we often want something a lot shorter to use as a quick "reset".  There are 2 and 3 minute meditations which we've been able to sneak in right before he leaves for school, even on pretty rushed days and 8 to 10 minute ones that we do regularly on non-rushed mornings. I think they help a lot in waking up his brain and making a kid who is totally not a morning person more able to learn first thing in the morning.
  • One meditation coach we like is Jon Kabat-Zinn. Our library has a number of his CDs with guided meditations (and his books, too) so you can try them out and see if he clicks for you. (If your library doesn't carry them, you can also listen to some previews of his meditation CDs in iTunes and see if you like them before purchasing.)
  • There are some free meditations and affirmations here at the web site My Thought Coach. I like some of them and am not so fond of others so it is a trial and error kind of thing. If you find them helpful, there is a month-by-month paid subscription that you can sign up for that lets you access all the content you want. You can download unlimited episodes while you have your subscription so you don't have to pay forever if you don't want to (and if you value the ease of just going to the website and listening from there, the cost isn't crazy).
  • Another one we like is Bohipaksa (he has a nice warm voice with Scottish accent). In particular the CD Guided Meditations for Busy People suits our attention spans.
  • Another set of  meditations that we really like is called The Practice of Mindfulness: 6 Guided Practices and it is available for a free download if you sign up for an e-newsletter at the Sounds True website (you can unsubscribe after downloading, if you want).
  • There are some guided meditation podcasts that I subscribe to (Audio Dharma and Zencast sometimes have episodes that are guided meditations, but they tend to be pretty long), and we use these occasionally. There are two Stin Hansen affirmations that we downloaded from iTunes ("Think Like a Great Student" and "Inner Peace--Affirmations for Growing Up in a Crazy World") that are good on days when we need a positive pick me up. And you can also just type in meditation podcasts in iTunes and see if anything appeals to your particular taste.
I've set up four playlists on iTunes which organize our guided meditations into categories and it makes it easy to pick one from the list without having to dig through my library: Before School, Short Meditations, Longer Meditations, Bedtime Meditations.

I've tried a couple of meditation and mindfulness apps for my iPod touch, but so far haven't found anything that we'll use. Knowing how particular we are when it comes to voices/music, I won't pay for an app unless I get to try it out first, so that does limit our options to the apps that have at least one or two free tracks (and then switch to in-app purchases).  If you have tried any and found them helpful, please let me know.

*So far, my 11 year old wants nothing to do with our mindfulness practice, though she is willing to leave us alone to do it. But she's also a much calmer person and is already naturally able to recover quickly from difficult emotional states, rather than dragging them with her like a ball and chain for the rest of the day.  Maybe when she's more of a teenager, if/when things get rocky, I'll be more persuasive in my sales-pitch, but for now "forcing" her to try mindfulness practice is too contradictory of a concept for me to attempt!

**I should also note here that we are not a religious family and our practice has not included the spiritual aspects of Buddhism. We're atheist humanists and have found mindfulness practice completely compatible with our world view.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


For the first time in years, I went to my book group having not read the book.  I bought the book, read the first 85 pages or so and then lost it. I'm pretty sure it fell into a snowbank in Detroit after a concert at the Music Box at the Max. I have to say, book group when you haven't read the book is way more boring (despite the excellent company and food!)

The book was The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner and I can't say I enjoyed the first 85 pages. That fed into my decision not to buy a second copy of the book.  But sometimes a difficult or flawed book is the most interesting to talk about--we've had book group meetings where we all loved the book and the conversation kind of peetered out or just dwindled to "didn't you love it when ____" statements. The Flamethrowers generated a passionate discussion about art, sexism, authenticity, and meaning. BIG subjects.

So it was hard to sit silently while other people expressed some very interesting opinions. But luckily I had a negroni and a some delicious cheese, prosciutto, salami and olives to keep my normally jabbering mouth occupied.
Part of The Flamethrowers took place in Italy so that guided our meal (well, except for the salad I brought, but then I didn't read the book so I figured I was exempt).

Lea made an amazing batch of foccacia bread. There was olive oil for dipping but it really didn't need it.

And Meg made a salt-crusted roasted red snapper,

which when unearthed was wonderfully sweet and flavorful.

It was served with romesco sauce, a mushroom rice dish, roman-style artichokes and my salad with spinach, dates, almonds, red onions and toasted pita.

Then Sarah brought out three types of gelato for desert with some lovely little lemon biscuits. I was so full by then that I just had little sampler dabs of each one.

The next time we meet, I know I'll have read the book because I already read it and loved it--Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Whether it ends up an interesting conversation or a chorus of "didn't you love the part ____" will be fun to track. And of course, the food and company will be wonderful!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Thundersnow, or what I like to call Despair-in-weather-form

Yesterday I was introduced to a new term: thundersnow.

It's when your snow storm is accompanied by thunder. Because snow falling at 2 inches an hour isn't bad enough. If you want to see and hear what it's like, I direct you to this youtube video I found.

I've handled the 6+ feet of snow we've had and shoveling new snowfall onto piles that are taller than I am. I've only griped a little when the numerous polar vortexes swept through and temperatures dropped into the -20 degree zone and were even colder with the windchill. I've deal with chipping through 1.5 inches of rock hard ice off the sidewalk with a coal shovel (great upper body workout!).

But thundersnow made me want to go hide in the closet, curled in a ball, and not come out until Spring.

So something had to be done.

And that something had to involve butter, eggs and chocolate. Definitely chocolate.

Ok, yeah, I'll uncurl myself from the fetal position to eat profiteroles.

The fact is that choux pastry is ridiculously easy to make and I was in no mental state to take on anything tricky or labor intensive. You chuck a stick of butter and a cup of water into a sauce pan, bring it to a boil, then turn the heat to low, dump in a cup of flour and stir with a wooden spoon until you have a globby ball that pulls away from the side of the pan. Plop the ball in the stand mixer and beat in 4 eggs, one at a time, until you have a smooth, pasty batter.

Then you can either use two spoons to urge little 1" blobs of the sticky dough onto parchment-lined cookie sheets, or glop the stuff into a ziplock bag, snip off a corner and pipe tubes for eclairs.  30 minutes in a 400 degree oven and you get cute little balls (or sticks) of puffiness to play with.

My favorite way to fill these is with whipped cream, but I didn't have any in the house and the two other people I was making these for still don't like whipped cream (my kids now eat spinach, but still consider whipped cream to be an unpleasant substance...go figure). There was vanilla ice cream in the freezer and I made a mediocre batch of pastry cream for the eclair tubes. It was more like vanilla pudding, enriched with egg, and not as good as the pastry cream I learned to make in my pastry class years ago (gotta find that recipe which is buried somewhere), but it was perfectly sufficient and served its therapeutic purpose last night, particularly when drowned in chocolate sauce (again, not amazing chocolate sauce--just some bittersweet chocolate melted into hot half and half). For my second round, I peeled a ripe bartlett pear, sliced it thin, put the profiteroles on top and doused the whole thing in chocolate sauce. It was very messy and very delicious and possibly the only reason that I am able to be coherent today.

You'd think that thundersnow would be a good way for winter to get its last punch in, but no. Today we have high winds (50 mph!) and flooding. Yesterday in a low lying part of a street I saw a backhoe digging out a storm drain from the concrete-hard mountains of snow that the snow plows have tossed up--not a little bobcat, but the big honking kind that you see on construction sites.  That was a first in my memory. And I assume the city will be sending that particular piece of equipment out all over town to try and give some of the melting snow a place to go. Particularly since there is another nasty blast of cold coming and if they don't all the streets will be sheet ice. If that happens, I don't know what I'll do--will a second round of profiteroles save my mental state? Or will I have to take it up a notch and if so what would that even look like? Suggestions welcome, particularly if you are local and want to come share.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Detroit Dining (with crap photos!)

One of the more fun things that I've had the chance to do since last September is dabble in the Detroit restaurant scene.  That's when my son started playing jazz piano with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's Civic Youth Ensembles (which, on a musical and parenting note, has been a fantastic experience. Auditions for 2014-15 are coming up so if you have a musical kid and are willing to do the schlep, I'd highly recommend checking them out.)  His ensemble rehearses every Wednesday from 7-9:30 and by a fortuitous aligning of our family's schedule with my mom's, my daughter has spent those evenings having concentrated one-on-one granny time while Brian and I take Ian to Detroit. We drop him off and then have about 2 hours to go out to eat before heading back to listen to the end of the rehearsal and take him home. There have been a few times that we both couldn't go and since the new year they've had to cancel 3 out of 5 rehearsals due to extreme weather (and probably should have canceled one of the 2 they held since it took us 2 hours to make the normally 45 minute trip).

One of the first things I did was make a Google map of food establishments that I'd like to try. Since we have time limitations*, we're mostly sticking with midtown and downtown Detroit (though I hope to get to Hamtramck soon to try Rock City Eatery). It also means we can't go to places where there are long waits for tables or super slow service. I really want to try La Feria Tapas, which is right around the corner from DSO, but it's tiny and there's always been a wait. There are also the financial limits--we don't have the budget to try Detroit's higher end dining every week so most of the places we're going to are pretty affordable. 

Here's a rundown of the places we've gone. The few photos I have are crappy iPod pics because I haven't remembered to bring a decent camera with me.

Green Dot Stables: A fun tapas-like place but with sliders. Order a whole bunch and share. I liked the Korean (beef, peanutbutter and kimchi), tempeh and buffalo chicken sliders the most. Some of the others were less successful--the quinoa was dry and the "mystery meat" of the day was a tasteless deep fried wee scrap of wild boar. And then there were basic choices like the coney dog and cuban (fine, just not very interesting). The desert fluffer nutter slider was fun and sticky. The cocktails are cheap ($3) and potent so make sure you have a designated driver who can resist their call.

Buffalo Chicken Slider with a Gin Promise

clockwise from left: mystery meat/wild boar, Cuban, coney dog, Korean slider, tempeh

Motor City Brewing Works:  good beer and decent enough pizza. I wish they'd improve their crust (too squishy and sweet) but otherwise an ok accompaniment for the beer.

Slows BBQ: delicious bbq--we had pulled pork, brisket and ribs--and huge portions. We got lucky with two seats at the bar but be prepared to wait if you want a table or visit the Slows to Go (which, despite the name, actually has some seating and in summer has a nice long outside picnic table) on Cass Ave.

Grand Trunk Pub: Decent enough bar food (good burger and corned beef) but we went here mostly for the atmosphere--the pub is located in what was the Grand Trunk Railway's ticket station so you can sip your beer under a gorgeous ribbed barrel vault ceiling.

Mercury Burger & Bar: Good beer on tap, perfectly cooked and affordable burgers and fries with a little extra oomph. 
I had the Flint Burger (green olives and cheddar) and garlic fries. The fries were cooked in lard and then tossed with an addictive garlic, rosemary, black pepper, salt comnination.

Brian had the fried bologna sandwich which came with excellent homemade pickles. He chose poutine for his fries which were ok, but not as good as you can get across the river in Canada.

Cass Cafe
: Very casual, friendly place with good affordable food and decent beer selection. I had a good salad that they made a little extra effort to make interesting  (hardboiled eggs coated in smoked paprika and deep fried artichoke hearts). It might not be a place I'd go out of my way to visit, but I liked the place and I'd be here all the time if I was a Wayne State Student.

Traffic Jam and Snug: fun atmosphere and decent porter, but I thought the food was disappointing. They make their own cheese and bread here (along with the beer), but I thought the bread was dry and tasteless and the cheese wasn't much more interesting than a slice of Kraft cheddar.

Dangerously Delicious Pies (inside the 3rd St Bar): outrageously good savory pie (especially the Smog--steak, mushroom, onion, gruyere), $6 a slice with a side salad, but I won't go back unless I want to get it for carry-out or until Spring/Summer when the outside seating is open. The 3rd St Bar is dark, cold, plays crappy music really loud and didn't have functioning draft taps. I wish Dangerously Delicious was housed in a more worthy bar.

Here are the places that I'd like to try between now and when Ian's rehearsals end for the season in early May:

La Feria Tapas
St Cece's Pub

Xochimilco Restaurant 

Ally Tacos (a counter inside Marcus Market)
Bucharest Grill (two words: chicken shawarma. You can take it to the Park Bar next door where they have a good selection of Michigan craft beer)
Rock City Eatery
Craft Work

Any other places that should be on my list and meet our limiting distance and price criteria?

*There are additional timing complications because some of Detroit's restaurants and bakeries aren't open in the evenings (I'm looking at you Le Petit ZincMudgie's and Avalon Bakery) so despite being within our geographical and price ranges we can't make them work.

Friday, January 31, 2014


It gets my attention when a chef says that they could eat a particular dish every night which is what Yotam Ottolenghi said about the above dish.  While I haven't made it daily, I have made it twice in as many weeks and it is really good--a cross between a lentil stew and hummus, but served warm (which is totally necessary since we're in the middle of a very harsh winter here.)

I made it once with regular old brown lentils and once with the more swanky French Puy Lentils that Ottolenghi called for and what do you know, I liked the more humble lentils better. He had to crush the French kind at the end of his recipe, while I found the slightly less firm brown lentils made for the perfect texture (the above photo is of the French kind; I forgot to take a picture when I made it with the brown, but it was a bit softer and saucier.)

Once I served it with brown rice because I already had some cooked and it was fast and easy and fine. But it was even better when I took the extra step of making pita bread to go with it--hot, soft, puffy bread pillows were the perfect medium for scooping up the saucy lentils. Add a green salad and you have a fantastic meal.

Lentils with Tahini and Cumin
adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi's Crushed Puy Lentils with Tahini and Cumin

3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 T butter
2 T olive oil
1 C lentils (I prefer the humble brown lentil)
1 t ground cumin
1 can petite diced tomatoes, or 3 large fresh tomatoes, chopped
a handful of cilantro leaves, chopped
4 T tahini
2 T lemon juice
1 C water
salt and black pepper

olive oil
1/2 small red onion, peeled and sliced very thin
1T chopped cilantro

Bring a medium pan of water to a boil. Add the lentils and cook for 15-20 minutes, until completely cooked, drain and set aside. Put the butter and oil in a large sauté pan and place on a medium-high heat. Once the butter melts, add the garlic and cumin, and cook for a minute. Add the tomatoes, the handful of cilantro and the cooked lentils. Cook, stirring, for a couple of minutes, then add the tahini, lemon juice, water, a teaspoon of salt and a good grind of black pepper. Turn down the heat to medium and cook gently, stirring, for a few minutes more, until hot and thickened. Serve each portion with a drizzle of olive oil, a scattering of red onions and a sprinkle of cilantro (or put it all in a warmed serving dish and garnish the whole thing).

Saturday, January 18, 2014

I miss him

I finished reading Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch about a month ago and I've had the strangest response. I enjoyed the book immensely, but it isn't the pleasure of reading the book that I miss (well, a little because it was a wonderfully immersive read). I miss one of the characters: I miss Boris.

Boris isn't the main character (that would be Theo) and he isn't in the first big chunk of the book and disappears for a good long while later in the book.  He's first a school boy and soon becomes an Ukrainian mobster with a heart of gold--unethical in a traditional sense yet highly loyal and thus admirable in a completely different way.

I would probably be terrified of Boris if I ever saw him in person. I rarely choose to spend time with people who are simultaneously erratic, violent, drunk and stoned. But I want to see him walk around the corner because I miss how interesting he was.

I've read a few reviews that compare the book to Dickens, and there are a ton of similarities. I've read a lot of Dickens and enjoyed a lot of Dickens and I think it's pretty clear that Boris is modeled on the Artful Dodger. But I've never I've felt this sort of affection for a character in Dickens.

I found that after I finished the book, I missed Boris the way I miss Falstaff, particularly the Falstaff in Henry IV Part II (and by the way, Simon Russell Beale's portrayal of the role in The Hollow Crown production of the plays was amazing). He lies and cheats and steals and is selfish and excessive, but he loves Hal and for that the audience forgives him everything (Hal doesn't, but that's part of Hal's character's growth). Similarly Boris loves Theo--he's the one person who really sees who Theo is, even when Theo is clueless about himself. And for that the reader loves Boris even when he's embarking on what appears to be a completely disastrous tangent.

There were things about the book that drove me crazy--sometimes it seemed like it was trying too hard to be like Dickens. And (similar to Dickens) the younger women characters were not satisfying which surprised me, since Tartt's other two novels have fully-drawn, complex women characters. (Was their flatness an homage to Dickens' heroines? If so, I'd like to have told her she had plenty of Dickensian similarities already packed in almost 800 pages and could chuck the Victorian roles of angel and devil.) And there's one completely simple solution to Theo's predicament with the stolen painting that never appears and the willful dodging of it got me pissy at times (I'm not going to list it here because maybe you can read the book and not have it bugging you in the back of your mind.) I put this book down and stalked huffily away a few times, but I kept being drawn back, and Boris was a big part of that.

But even with all these issues, I can still say that this book gave me so much more. It made me want to go sit in an art museum again and spend time with a painting (I haven't been in a museum without kids in way too long). It made me want to tramp the streets of NYC. It made me want to go to Amsterdam again (even though the main character is completely miserable while there). But most of all it made me appreciate interesting people who may not be safe people.

Have you read it? What did you think?

Tuesday, January 07, 2014


As I mentioned in my last post, I'm a little rusty on the blogging front. As I forgot to take a photo when I made this the other night, you are stuck with this photo of the leftover version that I had for lunch today:

Thankfully, a much prettier version accompanies the recipe in Plenty:

This recipe works because of the contrasts:  silky roasted eggplant; garlicky, sharp buttermilk sauce; bright sweet-tart pops of pomegranate seeds. It's not a terribly complicated recipe, but you don't want to skip any of the three facets and that means you better get in gear and make it while pomegranates are in season (they pretty much disappear from the markets here for about half the year.)

I've made a few tweaks to the recipe because while the combination is inspired, I think the dish benefits from added intensity: more garlic in the buttermilk sauce, more salt and a lot more za'atar. Also, while this edition of Plenty has fixed some errors that were in the first edition (the copy I borrowed from the library last year had erratic conversions of temperatures in Celsius to Fahrenheit so this recipe had 250 F listed rather than the approximate conversion of 450 F), I still had to adjust some temps. My edition of the cookbook says 400 F and I would definitely recommend 450 to get that golden burnished top (unless maybe you are dealing with really small eggplants).

And a warning, if you are thinking of serving this at a formal dinner party you should know that there really is no tidy way to eat it. Despite its pretty presentation once you start eating you're going to get a plate full of messy bliss, that quickly turns into something requiring fingers to pull away the eggplant skin and release the delicious innards. I recommend serving it with puffy, warm pita bread so you can sop up all the mashed bits of eggplant and sauce that will flood the plate.

Eggplant with Buttermilk Sauce and Pomegranate Seeds
adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty

Ottolenghi recommends serving this as an appetizer but I found it made a terrific main course, especially when paired with a spiced lentil tahini dish (recipe to come!), warm pita and a salad.

2 medium eggplants (if you are using large, then increase cooking time)
1/3 C olive oil
4 t za'atar*
salt and pepper

9 T buttermilk
1/2 C greek yogurt
1 1/2 T olive oil
2 cloves of garlic
1/2 t salt (or more to taste)

For serving
the seeds from one pomegranate
4 t za'atar
ground black pepper
olive oil

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise. Score the flesh in a diamond pattern (but make sure not to pierce the skin).

Place the eggplant halves, cut-side up on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush them with the olive oil--keep brushing until all the oil has been absorbed. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and 1 t of za'atar for each eggplant half. Roast for 35-40 minutes until the tops have become golden brown and the flesh is soft. Remove from the oven.

While the eggplants are cooking, seed the pomegranate (I do it in a bowl of water to keep me and my walls from being speckled with red juice) and set the seeds aside. Then make the sauce. In a medium bowl whisk together the sauce ingredients until smooth. Taste for salt--you want it pretty salty since it'll disperse over the eggplant and be diluted--and adjust as necessary.

You can serve these with the eggplants warm or at room temp. Put an eggplant on a plate, generously top with the sauce, sprinkle on an abundant quantity of pomegranate seeds and then sprinkle each eggplant with 1 t of za'atar (or more!) and a grind of black pepper, then drizzle with a little olive oil. Put the bowls of sauce and seeds on the table so people can add more as they work their way through their eggplant half.

* za'atar is a Middle Eastern spice mix composed of roasted thyme, sumac, sesame seeds and salt. I'm sure there are chi-chi spice shops that sell it for $10 for a 1/2 cup (no doubt with thyme harvested by elves at starlight and salt from the shores of Atlantis) but if you have a Middle Eastern market nearby, it is sold in 1 lb bags for $3-4.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Time to wake up

I've been letting this blog have a good well-deserved rest for the past year or so, but it's January 2014 and for some reason, old pessimistic me is thinking this is going to be a good year. And I'd like to share some of that goodness here.

I'm going to try and post once every two weeks (on average). Maybe more often than that.

A quick preview of what is to come:

I received two of Yotam Ottolenghi's cookbooks for Christmas, to join the one I already had:

I've been cooking out of all three and there are some real winners and favorites already emerging. Last night I made some amazing recipes from all three, but I'm out of practice and didn't take pictures. While Brian and I were gobbling it down (and he even declared it "gourmet") I thought, "I really need to share this with other people." So share here I shall.

I've been diligently updating my books read blog (and just started a new one for 2014) and I'll try to feature some more-than-just-a-blurb responses here on the main blog. 2013 ended with a superb run of grown-up fiction so I'll probably start with that.

And in the books + food category, I'm going to try and remember to bring my camera to my book group meetings this year. We're going on 14 years together and the book-themed meals are still fantastic.

And now for a little update on two of my former obsessions that are presently on the sidelines:

I probably won't be blogging about writing much. I'm presently working on two novels (early November was great! Then a period of fallowness and craziness and extreme non-writing followed) but despite being a realistic person, something about writing about my writing spooks me. I wouldn't go so far as to say "curse" but it feels like that. So other than possibly sharing a few resources that have helped "unstick" me when I've been stuck, don't expect much reflection on my own creative writing.

And my craftiness has definitely fallen by the wayside. I am knitting a super basic sweater now, but it isn't interesting, either to look at or to write about. I may feature some of my daughter's weird and wonderful creations (she's still at the age--10--where her imagination is uninhibited), but most of my crafting energy is spent figuring out ways to help her express her creativity which is far more visual than mine ever will be (her Christmas presents included whittling supplies, needle felting supplies and that ever popular medium, polymer clay).