It has been too long since I've posted. I'll see if I can improve. Really what I need is to get back into a routine again. Things are easier to get done with a routine.
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Still, now you can check out something I've been working on, collaborating with [info]saint_monkey. It's a cookbook... sort of.
The last two weeks I've worked on a couple drafts of a new short story. The idea formed quickly, and I had a lot of time to write during a road-trip. In fact, I wrote the entire first draft long-hand. It was a good diversion.
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However, I'm not sure what to do with it. It's a different sort of story for me. Specifically, it skews young. Too young to bring into the writers' group I'm in, and too young for me to judge it myself. I don't have kids or spend a lot of time with them, after all. So, I need to decide what to do with this. When in doubt, read some advice from experts. I've got one book coming already.
And while I research this, I'll try to get back to some of my abandoned projects, see if I can make anything of the poor devils. The problem there, of course, is that there's a reason each of them was abandoned... Anyway I turn, I've got some real hard work ahead of me.
My husband and I don't like having extra stuff around the kitchen. Which makes sense; we don't have much room, so if it's a specialized tool, it's not likely to be in our home. Except once in a while I fall in love with a little gadget, or the *idea* of using that gadget. Case in point: pie birds. I have two.
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What's a pie bird? It's like a chimney for fruit pies, acting as a vent so that the filling doesn't bubble over the crust. And, traditionally, they look like little black-birds. Mitch has commented a few times on how silly it is to have them.
Well, yesterday we watched Alton Brown's episode on apple pies. AB is also against kitchen tools that only do one thing. But he had a pie bird! I gloated - here I was vindicated!
It only lasted a moment. Because Mitch quickly pointed out that it would help my case a lot if I actually made pies.
It's on my list, now more than ever.
|Subject:||In a pickle|
I love pickles. I mean, they are just plain good. And I'm not picky - any pickled veggie looks like a great snack to me.
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I used to keep some homemade pickles in the fridge all the time, the infused, refrigerator sort of pickle, not the fermented Kosher dills (which I also adore, but that sort of work isn't for me). Refrigerator pickles are as simple to make as it gets, and, on the personal health angle they are a very low-cal snack. Which is why I originally kept them around, to have a bite to eat when I felt peckish and skip on the guilt.
Now I'm trying to get back in the habit. Once again, I've turned away from wherever I got my old guidlines (I honestly don't remember - it's a handwritten piece of paper I've had for years) and turned to more modern cooks for a recipe. Alton Brown had a couple shows on pickles, and I used the recipes from one of those. And maybe played just a little with the recipes...
Anyway, I made three different recipes of pickles the other day: Spicy, sour, and sweet, with three different kinds of veggies. We'll know in a while how they turn out. For now, they are very tempting, colorful jars in the fridge.
Writing work gets into routines. I took a short story to the workshop, got advice, and edited it up this week, which is the same thing I've done over and over. I'm not tired of the repetition, actually, but it does leave me without much to say. This is one of my favorites I've done, and it went very well with the group. One member even said it was "95% done and excellent and worth fixing the rest of it." Which is high praise in my mind. So today I will hand the new version to another reader and see how that goes. Soon, possibly early next week, it will join the little fleet of my stories out in the world, trying to earn its keep. And that is a very good thing.
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You know what I learned this Easter? Hollandaise sauce isn't that hard. For years I had thought I could only get this sauce at reputable restaurants (after an unfortunate greasy-spoon diner incident with Eggs Benedict). I thought it was too hard, too delicate, to try at home. One wrong move and you curdle the eggs! Using the recipe I had in Betty Crocker's Cookbook (1996 edition) only proved that theory - my Hollandaise turned into a tiny, tart lump of scrambled eggs.
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Of course, I also learned to use the right instructions. And those would be Alton Brown's, from his show Good Eats. Unlike the instructions in Better Crocker, which call for using direct heat on the egg yolks, Alton Brown's recipe has every insurance to make a smooth sauce. He uses a double boiler and even just a pinch of sugar to help keep the eggs from denaturing (curdling).
And now that I know how to make it, you can be sure I'll be making more of it. Pair it will any simple meat and some sauteed veggies and you have a great dinner! How can I not love it?
Holidays are rife with special food, mixing both cultural and family traditions on the same table. I grew up in the normal household that had plenty of these traditions. Thanksgiving dinner was always the turkey and common American sides, plus lefse (Norwegian flat-bread); Christmas Eve was always Mom's spectacularly involved New England Clam Chowder, and Christmas day was another turkey dinner with lefse. Easter was an enormous brunch with plenty of eggs, ham, and asparagus.
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With just the two of us, though, Mitch and I don't need to go all out for holiday cooking, but we are building a few of our own traditions. And for every Easter, our breakfast is my variation on Portuguese Easter Bread.
My version is actually very simple: a hard-boiled egg baked on top of a buttermilk biscuit, with some strips of biscuit dough pulled over the egg to keep it in place. The result is something that looks like a little basket holding an egg, an undeniable symbol for Easter. I'm looking forward to making them again this year. In fact, for the first time ever, this year I'm going to make the biscuit dough from scratch! The tubes of Pillsbury dough may be convenient, but I'm sure that I will get even better flavor by doing it myself.
When it comes to entertainment, my mom and I share similar, but not the same, tastes. She likes mystery novels, especially the amateur chef sleuths and the animal detectives. I prefer a tight procedural crime story, and I prefer them as movies or television shows. Then we both like speculative fiction, the Sci-fi, Fantasy, and horror stories. Only, I haven't read a horror story in years. And while she loves long, sweeping fantasy epics, I much prefer stand-alone novels. I always have; it's not that I'm opposed to series, and I've certainly read a few, but in general, I want my story packaged in a single book.
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But this year I've made a sharp turn. I'm currently reading a 3,200 page epic sci-fi tale, an expansive story with a broad set of characters and long, long detours. It's exactly what Mom loves (she actually recommended the books to me). And, after finishing one of those books, I decided to take a break. I picked up a book I had bought used from a sweet, talkative older woman at a book fair. A talking-animal mystery, "perfect for stormy days, or when you're snowed in."
I loved it. It was light, charming, and sweet. I love the sci-fi epic; I'm even enjoying some of the detours the story takes, since the author is pretty darned skilled at making them matter.
I guess if one has to turn into one's mother, there are worse ways to go about it.
Mitch and I love Parmesan cheese on our pastas, and we almost always keep a wedge in the fridge. By the time we get to the end, it's old, dry, as hard as a rock, and super flavorful. Which is wonderful, for as long as we can grate it. But we are always left with a tiny bit too small to grate and too hard to slice.
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A suggestion I'd read years ago, in an old cookbook by an Italian woman, was to toss that last hard piece of cheese into a soup while it simmers. I'm currently reading "Joy of Cooking" and the suggestion is there too, reminding me of the possibility to find a use for that leftover Parmesan. So this Sunday I made a variation on Minestrone soup, and tossed the cheese (about an inch, cubed, in size) in with the broth to see how it went. I expected it to melt, but it never did - just got a bit gooey on the outside. So I left it in the stockpot when I served dinner. Still, it brought a lot to the soup. The aroma was wonderful, but not overpowering, and the flavor of the broth was clearly altered by the cheese, without becoming heavy like a lot of cheese soups. I loved it, and I can't believe it took me this long to try it.
Very little to report: I did an edit of the new short story this week. It ended up being 3,700 words, which feels about right for this story. Now I think I need to get some feed-back on it before I do anymore.
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Eventually I'll get to the real topic, but let's have some set-up first. Sometime last year I baked a pie for my writers' group. The pie was a huge success, or rather the filling was. There were a few comments on how the crust could be improved. This is normal for my pies; I'm just not good with pie crusts. I don't have the patience to do it the right way (keeping the fat cold, and being very delicate with it). So I settle on making good fillings.
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So, a few weeks ago when Mark Bittman posted on his blog that he makes his own crackers, and that crackers are, essentially, ruined pie crust that's overworked and not kept cold, I was tremendously eager to try it. After all, I can ruin a pie crust.
Since he didn't give a recipe, I started with the Betty Crocker pie crust recipe, adjusting it to (try to) add flavor. For my first batch, I added a little black pepper and replaced the water in the recipe with red wine. The crackers turned out a really fun color purple. But they barely had a flavor - the wine and pepper just didn't come through over the flour. So now I knew that I couldn't have a light hand when flavoring my crackers.
For my next batch, I used the rest of my compound butter (mentioned a while ago). That had red pepper, black pepper, fresh cilantro, and lemon zest in it. I added some more zest and red pepper, and then split the liquid between water and lemon juice. And this batch turned out very, very well. Maybe a little too hot if you're not a fan of spicy foods. But for those of us who like spice, they were really good crackers.
So now I know how to use my lack of skill with pie crusts to create tasty, cheap snacks. And it feels really good to turn a failure into a success.
Happy Spring everyone!
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I love this time of year! The daffodils are coming up, the trees are budding, and everything has thawed.
Last Saturday, I took a project in to critique group, a 10k word mystery. And boy did they tear it apart. They are right, and I'll admit it; there are some big problems with this piece, and I'm going to have to tear it down to its foundations and start over.
And rather then work on that this week, I started something new. I wrote a rough draft of a new short story, but it's related to that troubled project in that I kept many of the issues my writers' group had with that in mind as I worked on this new one. While it's not a revision, I think it is a response to their advice. And, thanks to their advice, I'm convinced this is a stronger story.
Happy St. Patty's Day, everyone!
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Mitch and I have few traditions. When it comes to food traditions, we have just three, each one to its own holiday. We have duck and colcannon for Thanksgiving, Portuguese Baskets for Easter breakfast (I'll probably explain what those are in a few weeks), and Corned Beef and Cabbage Pizza tonight. And every time I tell someone what I cook for dinner on St. Patrick's Day, I get odd looks, weird sounds, or just "Well, that's something I'd never try." But honestly, it's quite good.
I think one of the big hold-ups is people imagine I put raw cabbage on the pizza and then bake it. Nope, there actually more prep work on the cabbage than anything else. First we sweat it (and Mitch is kind enough to take care of this for me) the day before, sprinkling lots of salt over the cabbage and letting it rest in a strainer. It will loose a lot of water and shrink down to half. Then Mitch rinses it (usually a long soak in fresh water helps) and dries it.
Before I put it on the pizza, I give it a quick saute in olive oil, with some pepper for flavor. And then it's ready to go, right on top of the pizza sauce. I add a good quality deli corned beef, sliced thin, and mozzarella cheese, and bake it.
All the flavors come together remarkably well. It's a meal I am looking forward to.
I didn't write this week. Not a single thing. I even have an outline for a new short story ready, but I didn't get to it. Sure, I have a good reason that will let me off the hook for half the week. And I'm really only on the hook with myself, so I don't feel too bad.
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My writer's group meets tomorrow. I have a 10k short story to read; I finished the third draft last week, and I look forward to polishing this one. It will probably take 2 meetings to read the whole thing. I am constantly "behind" with reading to my critique group, and have occasionally become impatient and submitted stories before getting the group's input. I know, it's not a good plan. I'm considering joining a second group, to cover my bases. And maybe I won't write novellas anymore (that sure took a huge chunk of critique group time).
Okay, and now for some heartening news from the publishing industry. For the first time in 20 years, more Americans are reading for pleasure. And the fantasy genre readership is up, too, especially in the 18-24 year-old group. One agent said that it's probably all due to the "Harry Potter" phenomenon. The kids who first read "HP" have grown up and still want quality fantasy entertainment.
Two of my favorite Indian restaurants (both gone to the land of wind and ghosts now) served filled naan. One had spiced potatoes and peas in their naan, and the other used a dried cherry and almond filling. They were delicious, and I miss them. Especially since I have never found a filled naan recipe.
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I did try to make a substitute this weekend. In Pepin's "More Fast Food My Way" (a library book I'm reluctant to return), he has a Tibetan flat-bread recipe. On the surface, it's very plain. But in the notes section, Pepin mentions adding herbs, spices, onions, and mushrooms. And I thought 'here was my chance to have filled naan, or something like it, again.'
I got a frozen pack of Bird's Eye "Garlic Peas and Mushrooms Steam Pack" for my filling. I didn't see a reason to go all out with a test like this, and pre-flavored veggies (plus easy to cook) seemed like a good idea. After they were cooked and cooled, I mixed the dough and stirred the veggies into it. The bread was easy to cook - it's really a giant, semi-steamed pancake. And I was ecstatic when I was able to flip it with minimal damage.
It passed the taste-test, too. It's not the same as naan - less chewy, softer, and a lighter flavor. It could have used more garlic and spices. But it was good. I look forward to trying it with different fillings. It's not the same as the original, but it's what I can do. And I'm pretty happy with that.
I sent the novella out. In fact, I submitted it to a writing contest.
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I don't do that normally. There are thousands of writing contests out there, and most of them, 95% of them maybe, aren't worth the time. Some are scams; scamming wanna-be writers is an age-old business. The majority are well-meaning but just not worth the entry fee, or the time the manuscript is held up. Or the prize isn't worth it. I mean, if you are sending out your very best work to a contest (and you should), where it will be held up for 100 days or so (that's normal), and the prize is publication in a tiny journal that has very few readers... well, you could have sent out that very best story to a couple magazines in that time, and perhaps been paid for publication in something widely-read. The last draw, being able to say "I won such-and-such" on a cover letter isn't always justification. Not every contest you've won is worth mentioning to editors when you submit something; most aren't well-known or respected enough to bother. So, in general, I avoid contests. This is the second I've submitted to (not counting years ago when I was younger and... let's say "innocent.")
I choose contests carefully. The last one I submitted to wasn't that old or well-known. But the head judge was a widely-respected, award-winning, best-selling author *in the field I typically write in*. This was confirmed information, too - I am not so easily fooled anymore. So I knew that if I was even just a finalist, it would be something worth putting on a cover letter. Uh, I wasn't, if you're curious.
This time, I submitted to one of the genre's big contests; very old, very venerable. I've been thinking about it on and off. And when I saw that they take novellas, I knew I had to send The Monster in. Partly because there aren't that many places that publish novellas, so taking it out of circulation while it's judged isn't such a hit. And partly because I think this is one of my best works. I think this story can do it. I think it's a winner.
You gotta love compound butters. They are easy to make, easy to keep around, and are a wonderful way to make a fast meal. I've relied on them as a sauce now and then. This time I put it on top of fish, zucchini, and polenta for Sunday's dinner. The individual bits were all cooked very simply, with just salt and pepper to season them (okay, and a little chicken broth in the polenta). So it could have been a bland meal, but for a generous pat of the butter. (And the crazy stacking job I did with the food, but that was all visual fun and I won't go into it further.)
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And all I did was mix stuff into butter. No melting, whisking, making a rue, nothing like that. Just a stick of softened butter and seasoning. This time it was lemon zest (from 2 lemons), fresh chopped cilantro (I don't know... one or two tablespoons), and ground black and red pepper. I think some garlic would have made it even better.
Of course, I still have most of it in my fridge. So the next few Sundays' dinner will have the same sauce. I hope we don't get bored with it...
This week I worked on the Monster Novella, of course. Having made the major edits, the minor edits, and examined everything the workshop had to say about it in the last few weeks, I had a pretty polished manuscript when I started.
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But I'm not going for "pretty polished." Part of my job is to make every submission as technically, grammatically perfect as possible. So I went through it again, sentence by sentence, looking for errors. Backwards. I started with the last sentence in the whole story, checked that, and then moved up.
Why backwards? It's an old trick for catching little things. When you're reading forwards, it's easy to get caught up in the flow of the piece, or look for larger issues. You'll be able to read faster, too. Going backwards forces you into a line-editing mode, forces you to only look at the sentence at-hand.
It took days to do. I did find a dozen or so errors I may have missed had I read it forward, so it was worthwhile. But my eyes are very, very tired now.
The Monster is done. I have to abandon it; no more fine-tuning or fiddling with it. I'm starting to second guess too much. I will be submitting it somewhere as soon as I get out to Kinkos (I'm not printing 80 pages off my printer, no way).
Last night I concluded that bacon is best left to professionals.
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A week ago or so, there was an article on lamb bacon on the Bitten Blog, the NY Times food column run by Mark Bittman. The article included instructions on how to make lamb bacon at home, and I was intrigued. Actually, I was driven to do this.
The cut of meat called for wasn't as easy to find as the article suggested. My local butcher agreed that "if you're going to make lamb bacon, that's the cut you want," but couldn't help me since he never has it. Four phone calls later and I found a place that could provide me with the cut, though only one day a week, when they got in the sides of lamb from the local (well, from somewhere in our state) ranch. He promised to put a package aside for me and quoted me a price.
I ended up getting the meat for free. The supervising butcher was gone for the day when I came, and none of the other butchers at the market knew how to key in the charge for this rarely-requested cut of lamb, even when I told them what I'd been quoted. It was very nice of them, and I felt that the whole experiment was on a lucky streak.
I followed the instructions to cure the meat. Yesterday afternoon, I roasted the meat on a very low setting, as directed. The scent was pleasant and homey, not at all overpowering. The bacon cooled, and when it was time to make dinner I sliced it up, fried it, and made Mutton-Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato sandwiches.
(Obscure pop-culture joke alert) They did not taste better than true love.
The bacon was way too salty. Almost inedible, in fact. The flavor of lamb only barely came through. As I ate it, I thought that I could taste the potential behind lamb bacon. But not enough potential for me to try the whole experiment again. Especially since I'm not sure how to fix the problem.
If I ever find a butcher or meat market that provides lamb bacon, I'll have to try it. See how it's done by the pros. Find out if it can truly taste as good as it sounds. Until then, I'll focus on more attainable goals in the kitchen.
I'm at work, but the database is busted and I can't do anything until it's fixed, so I'm bored. And I found the 100 BBC Books Meme, so I decided to do that.
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Of course, I could be spending this time productively. By reading, maybe...
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