Saturday, March 3, 2012

Book Review: Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah

This was my pick for my library book club last month.  It was one of the greatest discussions we have had about a single book, opening up all sorts of conversation topics and feelings for and against the book.  But yowza, was it an emotional roller coaster of a read! 

This book begins under a pretty typical "women's lives and relationships" formula.  Meredith and Nina are about as opposite as two sisters can be.  Meredith married her childhood sweetheart and took over the family business while Nina travels the world as a freelance photographer.  However, the thing they have in common is a deep love for their father and just as deep of an ambivilance for their mother. 

Growing up, the girls clung to their loving and warm father while constantly living in the shadow of their stern and cold mother.  However, when their father dies, they are left with broken hearts and the promise to "get to know their mother."  Anya Whitson is not an easy person to get to know though, something Meredith and Nina know firsthand from years of disappointment and neglect.  Still, out of love for their father, they return to their childhood home and persuade Anya to finish a fairy tale she began long ago, the tale of a young princess and her dashing prince.

As Anya finally begins unraveling her fairy tale it takes on a much darker and more realistic presence.  Suddenly the young princess is a pesant girl trapped in Soviet-blockaded Leningrad, fighting for her life and the lives of her children. 

Meredith and Nina are shocked and moved as their mother's story unfolds with amazing beauty and horror, discovering a woman they never knew before.

This is a touching and heartbreaking novel about the complicated relationship between mothers and daughters, but it is so much more.  It is an elecritfiying novel of historical fiction about the seige of Leningrad, an overwhelmingly tragic moment in history.  It is a novel about the triumph of the human spirit in the face of terrible trauma. 

I have to say, as a mother of young children this book haunted me deeply.  There's really nothing like reading about young children slowly starving to make you squeeze your own plump little babies until they squirm and say "Ow mommy, down please!"  Or maybe it's just me!  I literally could not talk about it for weeks without crying.  Hmmm...I'm not really selling it very well am I?  I really did love this book and the rich, multi-layered plot.  Kristen Hannah does an exellent job of telling a tragic story without being overly cloying or sentimental, so I'll forgive her for making me a little bit crazy while reading it.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Zinfandel Braised Short Ribs

Recently, my sister in law and her husband butchered a cow and gave us a large selection of various cuts of poor ol' Bessie.  For those of you who don't live in Oklahoma, or someplace like it, this is actually fairly common.  And I love the idea of eating locally raised food that I know was treated humanely and healthily Anyway, one of the cuts we were gifted with was short ribs, something I have heard a lot about but never actually cooked.  So I busted out the cookbooks, scrolled around on Google and ended up with a recipe that seemed to work best with my tastes and pantry contents.  Here is the original recipe from SimplyRecipes.com

Now, I don't know about you but I do not have veal stock in the pantry!  However, I have heard that a combination of chicken and beef stock create a similar flavor so that was my plan.  What I ended up doing (because I forgot) was just using beef stock.  I mean, I'm cooking beef right?  So, here is my adaptation of the recipe, 'cuz it's impossible for me to actually follow the recipe line by line!

4 Large or 6 medium beef short ribs
2-3 T flour
Salt, pepper, and paprika to taste
2T Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Pre-heat a large dutch oven or stockpot on medium heat with extra virgin olive oil.  Pat ribs dry and season with salt, pepper,and paprika.  Dredge in flour and shake off the excess.  Brown in olive oil until a nice crust has developed all over the ribs.  Remove ribs and get started on the veggies.

1 Large onion, chopped
2-4 cloves garlic, minced
4 Large carrots, washed and large chopped
4-6oz white mushrooms, cleaned and quartered
1/2 bottle of red wine, preferably zinfandel (or maybe that's just my personal favorite)
1 box or three cans beef broth
Salt, pepper, herbs de Provence (or fresh thyme and rosemary)


In the same pot that you browned the meat, add veggies (except garlic) and cook for about 8 minutes or until veggies have a nice color on them.  Remove veggies and de-glaze with the wine.  Hmmm...whatsya gonna do with the rest of the bottle???  Stir the pan with a wooden spoon, scraping up the crusty bits from the bottom and add the garlic. Let the wine cook down for 8-10 minutes or until reduced by half.  Add the meat back to the pan and add the stock until liquid almost covers meat.  Cover pot with a lid and put into a 375 degree oven for 2 hours.  Add veggies to the pot and cook for another 1/3 hour or until meat is very tender and shreds easily with a fork.  Let ribs cool on the stove top, then refrigerate overnight.  This was truly my favorite part of this recipe.
A) you can do it in the evening before a busy day and have a great meal ready to go tomorrow and
B) These ribs are fatty, fatty, fatty.

Yes, I know, fat is flavor but I tend to be a bit grossed out by large volumes of fat.  Not to mention I don't have the time to run the 39 miles it would take to burn all of that off!  When you refrigerate overnight, a lot of the fat hardens on top and you can remove it, but you still have the flavor/tenderness of cooking the meat with all of its fatty bits.

So, the next day, remove the pot from the fridge and remove as much of the hardened fat from the top as possible.  Then re-heat the meat over the stove top for about an hour, cooking uncovered until sauce reaches your desired consistency, like a thick gravy/glaze.  Serve with rosemary and Gorgonzola mashed potatoes (recipe follows) and steamed fresh peas.  This was a great Sunday supper!  There are a lot of steps and planning ahead but it was not at all a difficult meal and it sort of had that "wow" factor.  Definitely going in the regular rotation!

Potatoes:

6-8 medium red-skinned, yellow fleshed potatoes (you can us any potato, I just think they have a better flavor)
4 T low-fat sour cream
2 T butter or margarine
1/2 C crumbled Gorgonzola or blue cheese
Sprig of fresh rosemary, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste


Wash potatoes and chop into 1 inch chunks.  Place in pot of cold water and bring to a boil over medium heat.  Boil 15-20 minutes or until potato pierces easily with a fork.  Drain water and add potatoes back into the hot pot.  Toss in the remainder ingredients and smash into a chunky consistency with a potato masher or large wooden spoon.  Serve in a large bowl with extra Gorgonzola sprinkled on top.  Mmmm...I could eat just these for dinner!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Mushroom Marsala Fettuccini

Lately I have been back on the Rachael Ray meal train.  It may have something to do with a sick day, a DVR, and a need to "clean up" the hundreds of hours of recorded shows that I never have time to watch.  So, my friend Rach gave me some yummy new ideas to shake up the family mealtime rut, so stay tuned for a few more RR meals in the future.

For Valentine's Day, we experimented with cooking a mushroom Marsala steak sauce with lovely results so it's my current new obsession.  So of course when I saw her make Double Mushroom and Marsala Creme Fettuccini, I knew that would be hitting my table soon!  Of course, I had to change a few things, I don't know where Rach shops but in my grocery store dried Porcini mushrooms are about $8 an ounce!  If you feel so inclined, check out the original recipe, I'm sure it is completely fabulous, but mine was pretty dang good too.  Here we go:

1 8oz package each, whole button and cremini mushrooms, wiped clean and sliced.
1/4 red onion, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced
2T extra virgin olive oil and 1T butter
Handful of fresh thyme
Black pepper
1/2 C dry Marsala wine (sort of like port and quite tasty, it's helpful to have a small glass for the chef while cooking!)
1 C (approximately) beef broth
1/2 C half and half or heavy cream (I used half and half)
1lb fettuccini (original recipe calls for whole wheat but I had the regular so I just used that)

Heat a non-stick pan to medium heat with butter and olive oil.  Add mushrooms, onions, and garlic.  Saute veggies for several minutes until mushrooms are well browned.  Douse mushrooms with Marsala and cook for a few more minutes or until about halfway reduced.  Add beef broth and cook reduce again.  Add half and half, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer gently while pasta cooks.

While pasta cooks and sauce simmers, make the panko topping.  As a side note, panko is my new favorite thing!  It is light and crispy and lovely and magical.  Okay, maybe not magical, but it can make a fish sooo yummy that it happily fed three generations of my family, so that's pretty magical to me.  Stay tuned for magical fish recipe...  Annnyyyway, back to panko topping for pasta:

2 T butter
1 clove garlic, finely minced or pasted
1 C panko
1/2 Parmiggiano Reggiano
Handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped

Heat butter in a small saute pan until bubbly, add garlic and panko, stir around and cook on low until panko gets toasty and golden brown.  Turn off head and stir in cheese and parsley.  This is a heavenly crunchy little "garlic bread" tasting topping for your noodles.




When pasta is just slightly under-cooked, drain and stir gently into the mushroom sauce.  Stir for a minute or two to combine well and thicken the sauce.  Sprinkle toasty topping on individual plates and enjoy!  In order to offset the butter/cream sauce, I made a simple spinach and tomato salad to go with this.  That negates the fat you know!  It should be noted, this is not the best "money shot" of the meal, but I couldn't resist the toddler slurping up his noodles in the background.  There you go, kid approved!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Diva Days

Every February, my daughter and I end up attending multiple tea parties, brunches, and other very "fancy" events.   It just works out that way.

For one thing, it is black history month and that is marked at our library in a very special way.  Several years ago, some very creative people (men, if you can believe it) published a book called Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats.  I know, it sounds silly but it really is exactly that, a beautiful book with beautiful pictures that is a true celebration of womanhood and the tradition of bringing out your "Sunday best" for church.  For the record, I know that God does not care what you are wearing when you come to His house, but you have to admit, there is something special and reverent about putting on your best for this special day.  It really brings back the celebratory nature of Sundays as being truly days devoted to church and family.  Goodness gracious, I can get on a tangent.

So back to my point, there are several wonderful libraries in my area (and I'm completely objective, don't you know) and two of them do absolutely amazing events based on this lovely little book.  The first is the Gospel Brunch at the Moore Public Library.  It's a celebration of the gospel tradition capped by an amazing performance by Christopher Jones, a man who is a beautiful singer and an encyclopedia on the tradition of black gospel music.  And of course, it is full of lovely ladies in lovely church attire.  I've been taking my daughter since she was in a carrier and she has always enjoyed it.  It is a happy, clappin' and amen-ing type of occasion.  Who doesn't enjoy a fancy brunch every once in a while?

Next week we will attend my favorite library event of the entire year, the Crown's Tea.  Again, it is inspired by the book.  Have you ever looked at those crazy hat pictures of mine and wondered "What is with that woman and that big purple hat?"  Well, this is it.  The Crown's Tea.  It is a sea of lovely ladies dressed to the nines.  I mean, you've gotta go at least once just to see all those hats.  Big hats and small hats, sparkly hats and flowery hats, feathers, veils, brims, hats that are like nothing you've ever seen or imagined before.  You think those Royal Wedding gals have some crazy hats?  You haven't seen anything until you attend the Crown's Tea.  Seriously, it should be on every woman's bucket list.  Yes, I am a bit evangelical about this event.  But so are a lot of other people, judging from how hard it is to get a ticket to this thing sometimes.



So, add to these two amazing programs, the Daddy Daughter Dance, and the Fancy Nancy Tea Party and you can believe that by March 1 my daughter is going to be one spoiled little diva.  I think we are going to have to spend Spring Break dragging her back to reality!  Maybe a laundry tutorial?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Staying In

As you may have heard, today is Valentine's Day.  At this phase of my life, I really don't get super hung up on this Hallmark card-type holiday.  Still, it is fun to spend a day trying extra hard to show love and appreciation to the most important people in life.  Especially when those people are trying to sneak into your bed at 6 am, making you want to scream in frustration, until they whisper sweetly "Happy Valentine's Day Mommy."  Still, 6 AM???

No, Hubby did not make reservations for a fancy restaurant.  Frankly, he rarely thinks of such things on his own and even when he does, it turns out to be a restaurant or time or date or whatever that doesn't work for me so you can't blame the guy for mostly not bothering.  But, for the last couple of  years he has done something just as good and often much better.  He cooks me dinner.  This is quickly becoming our stand-by "date" for special occasions or much-needed couple time.  Seriously, you could cook a $100+ meal in your own kitchen for less than $30 and it can turn into a really fun experience.  We put the kiddos to bed around 7 and then get cooking!  Generally, the meal he prefers is steak au poivre.  This is French (and as Fancy Nancy has taught us, everything is fancier in French) for steak coated in black pepper or served with a peppercorn cream sauce.  I don't really have a recipe for you, he makes it a bit different every time but basically you need some filets, a can of green peppercorns (you can find these at a specialty grocery), shallots, butter, brandy, and heavy creme.   It is a luscious, spicy and rich sauce that would make anything taste better.  Here is a photo of our anniversary dinner.  Yummy, right?

Really though, you could cook whatever said "date night" to you.  Have a favorite dish at a restaurant?  Google it and try to make it!  Spend the money you save on the babysitter and restaurant tab on shoes.  The best part, you get to eat in your jammies and who doesn't love that?  Or maybe it's just me.

So the next time you want to rekindle to flame, or you forget to make reservations for that special night, get in the kitchen and cook a dinner together.  It makes for great conversation and "togetherness" which we sometimes need after staring at the same face for years and years.  I still love going out to dinner with my hubby, but this sure makes date night more accessible.  Incidentally, for tonight's menu we are ditching the peppercorn sauce for a mushroom Marsala sauce.  What the heck is Marsala?  I'm not really certain but it makes one yummy sauce!  Keeping my fingers crossed that we get it right!  Happy Valentine's Day!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Manly Man Birthday...

Last week was my husband's birthday and I, being an occasional great wife, let him pick what he wanted to do.  Well, surprise surprise, he wanted to go have breakfast at Cattleman's Steakhouse.  You know, 'cuz nothing says "breakfast" like a big, bleedin' T-Bone if you are an Oklahoma guy!  If you've never been to Cattleman's (which I hadn't) it is actually a pretty cool experience.

This place has been here for about 100 years (literally) and has been visited by movie stars, food critics, and a few presidents.  I don't know if they have EVER changed the decor so be prepared for tan-ish/green-ish vinyl and big-haired waitresses who call you "honey" and treat their jobs as an absolute art.  I could barely let my coffee cup touch the table before Lisa was there to "warm it up" for me.  I will admit that there was alot of eye-rolling on my part at his insistence on going to a steakhouse at 8 a.m. but I ended up really enjoying it.  Hubby got the corned beef hash and I got the breakfast burrito.  Both were humongous and came with pretty much every breakfast carb. offering that you can think of.  The biscuits and gravy were particularly amazing.  The kids split a bacon and eggs type meal and ate it all plus some of those amazing biscuits with gravy.  I'm pretty sure they ate more than any pre-schooler should!  Your doctor probably wouldn't reccommend going there on a regular basis but it was definitely worth the trip for some amazing down home cookin' and a slice of Western history.

After our 4,000 calorie breakfast, we went to one of Hubby's favorite places, the Myriad Botanical Gardens.  He particuarly likes going there in the dead of winter.  Sort of like a faux tropical vacation.  The property features acres of outdoor gardens and water features, which have recently been beautifully renovated.  Unfortunately, they "renovated" right over the parking lot so we had to circle the block several times trying to park, but that's really my only complaint.  The centerpiece of the gardens (and why you go there in February) is the Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory, basically a mini indoor rainforest in the middle of the city.  It's just beautiful in there with waterfalls, orchids, and an amazing array of tropical plants and butterflies.  What is really great is the way they have made each level of the rainforest accessible, from the ground floor to the tops of the tall palms.  Hubby has been taking me here since we were dating and I still find something different every time.  You can print off a coupon here.  You can also leave it on your kitchen counter like I did.  And they want the paper coupon, they haven't bought into the whole mobile coupons convenience yet.  Oh well, it's only a dollar.

Back outside, they have added a separate children's garden with lots of play areas, mosiacs and really beautiful gardens.  The best part is that it is entirely fenced so you can let you guard down a bit.  It's sort of a modern take on a playground, everything is very geometric and simple.  The kids loved it and could have cared less that it was February.  We had such a good time running and climbing (all of us).  I can't imagine how beatiful it will be when things are actually growing and blooming in there!

As if that wasn't enough, I cooked his favorite dinner, Shepherd's Pie.  I even let him talk me into using actual white potatoes instead of sweet potatoes.  Seriously, I think I should earn Wife of the Year credit, don't you? Or maybe just a gym membership after that day of eating!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Bump in the Road

Shortly before Christmas, I sort of reached "obligation overload."  We've all been there, when life is running to fast for comfort and something has gotta give.  I picked this blog as the something.  What started as a short break has turned into about 6 weeks now.  My apologies to my dad, my globe-trotting cousin and you other 5 people who have been visiting this site hoping for an update!  What's funny is about a 100 times in the last month-ish, I have thought "this would make an awesome post" but somewhere between idea and motivation things got sketchy.  You see, I'm not really a "half-ass" kind of girl and the truth is the only thing I can really commit to this thing right now is just that.  The other half of my ass is busy trying to not be so "voluminous" in between binges on hummus and sourdough.  Sigh.....  Anyway, so on with the half-assed blog.  I can't gurantee that I won't "leave the building" again (I have two kids, a part-time job that feels pretty full time, a rapidly aging house and an increasingly desperate hummus habit...see above).  But I'll give it a shot.  Hope y'all had a Merry Christmas, happy New Year, MLK day, Groundhog Day, etc.

We'll start back slow...here's a book review that I wrote for the Moore Monthly.  If you ever are just dying for a printed copy of my "work" chances are you can find it here.  It's a pretty neat little magazine about the goings on in and around Moore, Ok.  A "baby Gazette" for lack of a better description.  You can find them FOR FREE PEOPLE!!! at lots of businesses in Moore and also at the Norman Public Library.  Anyway, the book was The Night Circus and was just about the quirkiest, most frustrating, and most beautiful book that I have read in a long time.  Here you go:


The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Once upon a time there were two ancient magicians who liked to play games.   Each magician would select a student and carefully train them in the ancient language and skill of magical manipulation.  And then, the students would be set into an “arena” of sorts to prove that their magic was more powerful than the other’s.  And this is the beginning of the Night Circus.  

When an elderly eccentric conceives the notion of a mysterious circus unlike anything the world has ever seen, he cannot imagine the ramifications of what he actually sets in motion.  As he hires talented and strange characters from all over the world, already the “stars” of the show have been carefully trained and molded for the performance of their lives.  

Celia Bowen, the magician’s daughter, was born into the magical world, even before she realized it.  Now a beautiful illusionist, she is a sort of matriarch of the circus and is intent on protecting it from any harm, even if that means destroying herself in the process.

Marco is a foundling, an orphan who was adopted and rigidly trained to win his teacher’s game at all cost.  However, when Marco and Celia finally meet, they forge a bond that is stronger even than the magic they have learned, stronger than their alliance to their mentors.

What started as a game has become a dynamic, breathing circus, a magical and wonderful place that touches the lives of so many.  Reading The Night Circus, you will find a rich, multi-layered story of pride, love, friendship, and the power of free will.  Each chapter will lead you further into an astonishing labyrinth where magic becomes reality and anything could be around the next corner.  With The Night Circus Morgenstern has built an intricate and alluring story that will keep you pondering long after the last page is turned.  


So, to recap, I will try to not be such a slacker in the future. No promises though, try to not be too heartbroken! But we'll give it another shot. Stay tuned for Turkey Tomatillo Chili, the Myriad Botanical Gardens...new and improved, and Adventures in Raising the Most Destructive Child on the Planet. Yep, that should keep me busy for a while...

Thanks for reading!