The Day I Read A Book.

A continuation of the books I read in 2011.  Read about April.


  • By the time I got around to reading it, I’d forgotten all of the reviews of Elizabeth Strout‘s Olive Kitteridge.  I’d forgotten that Ms. Strout’s work was more anthology of related stories than novel, that the setting was a small New England town in coastal Maine, that the titular character wasn’t in fact the main character after all.  Worth the read, but it’s up to the reader to decide if it’s worth the hype.
  • The Wolfen by Whitley Strieber is an absolutely terrible novel that everybody in the world should read.  I mean, it’s about a pack of way-more-intense-than-werewolves wolves living, hunting and killing in 1970s New York City and the two police detectives that are tracking them down.  Oh, and I should mention that parts of the story are told from the point of view of the wolves.  So awesomely bad.  One of my goals for 2012 is to get my hands on a copy of the film adaptation.
  • Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table, a Collection of Essays from The New York Times edited by Amanda Hesser is pretty self-explanatory.
  • So is, in a way, Elizabeth Graver‘s The Honey Thief, as it is about a thief of honey, but imagine how boring a story it would be if that were it as far as plot were concerned.  The novel is about mothers and daughters, religion, inheritances and friendships, as well as honey.
  • I purchased a copy of Room at Fully Booked in Manila; at that point in our trip, I had read all of the books I’d packed and The Wolfen off of Keith’s iPad, and was desperate for something to read, as I had three days in Hong Kong and a twenty-something-hour flight back to the States to get through.  I hadn’t followed the previous year’s hoopla surrounding Emma Donoghue‘s novel but it just so happened that Room‘s plot fit in perfectly with my kidnapping/crime obsession.  Though told from five-year-old Jack’s point of view, the reader quickly realizes that Jack and his mother live a grim and terrible sort of life: abducted at nineteen, Jack’s mother had gotten pregnant and gave birth in captivity, and all Jack knows of the world is the 11 x 11 room he was born in.  Though I sometimes find the use of children’s first-person narration in adult novels to be gimmicky, Jack’s perspective was unique and interesting enough to keep me reading.
  • After years of trying, Keith and I secured reservations at elBulli in November of 2010, and for that reason I was particularly interested in The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adrià’s elBulli by Lisa Abend, which chronicles not a year of elBulli so much as a year in the life of a stagiaire at elBulli.  It’s fascinating to learn of all their backgrounds, interests, successes and failings, regardless of whether or not you’d eaten at the restaurant or not.
  • I should’ve kicked my kidnapping kick before reading Still Missing, as I found the abducted narrator of Chevy Stevens‘s novel to be both irritating and without redeeming factors.  Skip it.
  • Laura Lippman‘s I’d Know You Anywhere is also about kidnapping, is leagues better, and ultimately forgettable.


  • I hadn’t read any Nick Hornby in years; it was only Juliet, Naked‘s availability at my local library that made Mr. Hornby’s most recent novel my first of his to read since About a Boy.  Funny stuff, this, and a must-read for those who have music nerds in their lives or who are self-aware music nerds.
  • My book club needed something to read, so I recommended In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pintoff, simple because I already had it out of the library and had just started the book the same day.  The mystery takes place in turn of the century New York — a genre, historical period and location that the ladies in book club all love, so for that reason it was it good fit.  The main character, a detective with a tragic past, transfers out of a gritty and corrupt New York City precinct to sleepy, quiet Westchester County.  Instead of finding tranquility, he’s face-to-face with the most brutal murder he’s ever seen.
  • I’m not going to lie, I read Getting the Pretty Back: Friendship, Family and Finding the Perfect Lipstick by Molly Ringwald only because I was on a Breakfast Club kick.
  • Sue Miller’s The Lake Shore Limited is told from the perspective of four characters, a writing technique that I as a reader and a writer really enjoy.  Sometimes it can be done beautifully (In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, for example) but more often than not, this is done in a mediocre fashion.  Ms. Miller is a fine writer, and she tackles this well, but I didn’t find any of the four characters to be unforgettable.
The Day I Read A Book” by Jimmy Durante.

Wrapped Up in Books.

I’m many things, but a New Years resolutionist I am most certainly not.  That said, I am trying to be a bit more positive-minded, as opposed to my regular the-glass-isn’t-just-half-empty-but-also-about-to-fall-off-the-table-and-smash-into-a-million-pieces-on-the-floor mentality.  So rather than lamenting how I spent barely any time last year on writing posts, I’m instead going to focus on the fact that I spent a good amount reading books. And since I know there’s no way I’d be able to write proper-length posts on all of them, but I’ll give some simple summaries of each, along with my opinions.  Since I started recording what I read last year in April, that’s where I’ll begin.  I’ll keep writing these bookish posts and finish with the last book I read this month.


  • Winston had just died, and all I wanted to do when I got back to Boston from New York was reread the beautifully-written novel Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, about the titular geisha’s life before, during and after World War II.  I found the following apropos passage on grief, which I then emailed to my mother: “Grief is a most peculiar thing; we’re so helpless in the face of it. It’s like a window that will simply open of its own accord. The room grows cold, and we can do nothing but shiver. But it opens a little less each time, and a little less; and one day we wonder what has become of it.”
  • Not Becoming My Mother: and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way by Ruth Reichl has been renamed For You, Mom. Finally for paperback, which is not unusual but still something that surprises me.  Something else that surprises me is that I don’t remember much of this memoir.  This is incredibly odd for me, as I have a remarkable memory.  I’m sure the writing is fantastic, as Ms. Reichl’s always is.
  • I do remember The Report by Jessica Francis Kane quite clearly, as I am fascinated by World War II and found this debut novel about a tragedy in the Bethnal Green tube station/air raid shelter to be ridiculously and enviously well-written.
  • A Polish emigrant and a New York adolescent are the sad and cynical narrators of Nicole Krauss‘s The History of Love.  Strange as it is to say, I didn’t care either way about the plot, but since I loved Leo the Pole so much, I managed to overlook everything else.
  • I’ve been obsessed with Suzanne Collins‘s Hunger Games trilogy for a while, and reread The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay for the first time in April.  It held up.
  • While I did enjoy Lynn Barber’s memoir An Education — which was made into the multi-nominated film with a star-making performance by Carey Mulligan — I wonder if part of the reason why I flew through it was because it was so short or because I was on a plane en route to Asia and therefore trapped.  Regardless, Ms. Barber is a perfectly fine writer who recounts her life in the heyday of 1960s England in a refreshing, straightforward way.
  • Ugh, I did not like An Evening of Long Goodbyes by Paul Murray, a hardback book club read that I lugged from Massachusetts to Manila, Vietnam, Cambodia, Hong Kong and back again.  Protagonist Charles Hythloday plays at being a nobly-born country aristocrat outside Dublin; when he’s forced to eke out a living, it was no surprise to me that this insipid loon struggles to find a place for himself in troubled modern-day Ireland.  There’s another storyline involving explosives and actresses, but I can’t be bothered to go into it.
  • Another novel I brought along on my Asia trip was The Missing by Tim Gautreaux, which set me down a path of kidnapping, violence and crime — in my readings, that is.  Mr. Gautreaux’s book is the truly compelling story not just of abduction, but also of redemption and revenge.  Oh, and there are riverboats.
  • I finished reading Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction That Changed America (by Les Standiford with Det. Sgt. Joe Matthews) in Siem Reap, and that night in my hotel room I used the dodgy Internet connection to Wikipedia Adam Walsh’s 1981 kidnapping.  From there I read about Ottis Toole, Henry Lee Lucas, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy and pretty much every other serial killer I could think of until I was too freaked out to open the door for room service.
Wrapped Up in Books” by Belle + Sebastian.

Book Club + Julia.

I am, amongst other things, a sentimentalist, a writer, a reader, a traveler and a cook, so it makes perfect sense that I would absolutely love My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud’Homme, her step-grandson, considering that it:

  • is a memoir (which, by nature, must be a bit sentimental, though Julia Child* is not);
  • was written, and makes references to letters written to and by Julia Child;
  • was read by me;
  • is about Ms. Child’s life abroad — and in more places than just France, for the record; and
  • focuses on food.

It sounds like a pretty good match, right?

My Life in FranceI wanted to get my hands on a copy immediately when it was published in 2006; at the time, Keith and I were about to part with a massive down-payment on a house, and I had cut back on the purchasing of items, particularly and unfortunately hardcover books.  For my birthday that year, because he knew how much I wanted to read it, Keith gave it to me this as a part of my gift.  It was one of the best books I’d read in a long while — which is really saying something, considering how much I read**.  I remember thinking it was honest, and witty, and personal, and full of little anecdotes that made me want to laugh out loud.  There’s lost-in-translation stories about communicating with the French, Germans, Norwegians, and family; there’s detailed accounts of the endless hours spent researching recipes; there’s touching glimpses of Child’s love life; and of course, there’s the food.  Seriously: the food, which is reason alone to run out and buy the book.  Or at least borrow it from your local library.

And that is pretty much what I said when my book club decided they wanted to read it.

So we did, planning a Mastering the Art of French Cooking-themed dinner at Stephanie’s apartment in Jamaica Plain, where we discussed the book last Sunday night.  Or, we at least tried to, considering we were busy stuffing ourselves absolutely silly with a truly disgusting amount of food… the majority of which was made with massive amounts of butter.  Julia Child Dinner, 1(The morning after dinner, on the phone, I asked Stephanie how much butter she thought we had eaten.  “A pound,” she replied.  “Let’s not think about it.”)

Because we wanted to be a little organized — our book club is a little free-form, but around food we are not — we coordinated what dishes we would bring to Stephanie’s.  Amanda, Heather and Sarah each baked various gratins (potato, Brussels sprouts and zucchini, respectively); Melissa made her own puff pastry, which she filled with anchovies and cheese; Stephanie made Hollandaise and artichokes, as well as a bouillabaisse so delicious I stupidly almost asked for the recipe; and I ended up making (at Melissa’s suggestion) chocolate mousse.

Julia Child Dinner, chocolate mousseI love chocolate mousse, always have, and so was a bit irritated with myself for not being clever enough to think of making it on my own.  My friend Kelly is French, and one of his terribly chic sisters (also French) once served me homemade mousse at their parents’ table in the little stone village of Nissan-lez-Enserune.  Not once had it ever occurred to me that I — little ol’ curly-haired me — would ever be able to make something as luscious and lusty as chocolate mousse, but it turns out that this is precisely why we have Julia Child, to get us out of our chairs and into our kitchens to make luscious and lusty things like bouillabaisse and Hollandaise and puff pastry.  And thank goodness for that, because this mousse was dee-vine, as they say and if I do say so myself.

I can’t take any of the credit though.  It was all Julia.  I just was the girl holding the mixer.

Chocolate Mousse, from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle and Julia Child
Makes about five cups, which is enough for six to eight portions

4 eggs, separated
¾ cup granulated sugar plus one tablespoon, separated
¼ cup orange liqueur
6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
4 tablespoons strong coffee
6 ounces unsalted butter, softened
¼ cup finely chopped candied orange zest (recipe following)
Pinch of salt

A pan of not-quite-simmering water
A basin of ice water

  1. Beat the egg yolks and sugar together until mixture is thick, pale yellow and falls back upon itself, forming a slowly dissolving ribbon.  Beat in the orange liqueur, then set the mixing bowl over the not-quite-simmering water.  Continue beating for three to four minutes until the mixture is foamy and too hot for your finger.  Then set the mixing bowl in the basin of ice water and continue to beat for another three to four minutes until the mixture is cool and again forms the ribbon.  It will have the consistency of mayonnaise.  (It really will.  It’s a little freaky.)  Set aside.
  2. Place another clean mixing bowl over the basin of not-quite-simmering water, creating a double-boiler.  Inside, melt chocolate with coffee, then remove from heat and beat in the butter a bit at a time to make a smooth cream.  Beat the chocolate into the egg yolks and sugar, then beat in the orange zest.
  3. In yet another clean mixing bowl, beat the egg whites and salt until soft peaks form.  Sprinkle in the sugar and beat until stiff peaks form.  Stir one-fourth of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture, then gently fold in the rest.
  4. Turn into a serving dish, dessert cups or petits pots.  Refrigerate for at least two hours, or overnight.

Glazed Orange or Lemon Zest
Makes about half a cup

5 lemons of 3 bright-skinned oranges
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  1. Remove the colored part of the lemon or orange skin with a vegetable peeler.  Julienne into strip 1 ½ inches long and 1/16 inches wide.  Simmer in one quart water for ten to twelve minutes, or until just tender when bitten.  Drain and refresh in cold water.  Dry on paper towels.
  2. Boil sugar and 1/3 cup water in a small saucepan to the thread stage (230°).  Remove from heat.  Stir in the drained peel and vanilla.  Let the peel stand in the syrup for at least thirty empty.  Drain when ready to use.  Under refrigeration, the peel will keep in the syrup for several weeks.
* I cannot, for the life of me, bring myself to call Julia Child anything by Julia Child.  I don’t know why.
**But you know what they say about quality and quantity, and I have been known to indulge in more than one guilty literary pleasure.

Book Club Goes to Tanglewood.

TanglewoodMy book group likes connecting previous books and themes to our current reading.  Even more than that, we love a good field trip… which is how we ended up at Tanglewood for its annual celebration, Tanglewood on Parade.

Our being there wasn’t as arbitrary as it seems; last year we read three books that somehow revolved around Abraham Lincoln — The Poet and the Murderer by Simon Worrall, Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell, and Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon* — and the concert featured Lincoln Portrait, Aaron Copland‘s composition commemorating the sixteenth President.  Interspersed in the music are some quotations from Lincoln, which were read that night by Deval Patrick, while the Boston Pops played.

Fireworks, 1The evening’s finale was Tchaikovsky‘s 1812 Overture, replete with canons, and followed by a spectacular fireworks display.  It was my first time seeing non-televised fireworks — which was quite exciting, particularly since we happened to be sitting very close to where both they and the canons had been set off.  I don’t think any of us in my book club were expecting either canons or fireworks; indeed, when the first shot banged out during the overture, more than one of us screamed in fright and surprise.

In spite of the amazing fireworks and canons, my personal favorite piece of the night was Tributes: For Seiji, which was written as a gift for Seiji Ozawa by John Williams to honor Ozawa’s twenty-fifth years as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Ozawa held this position for four more years after that).  I thought it was brilliantly moving.**

Picnic, Thigh + WineAnother thing about the night that I found brilliant were other people’s ability to glamorize something as prosaic as a picnic.  Apparently it’s something of an established practice to pack a picnic to Tanglewood, especially if you’ve lawn tickets to a concert.  Our book club decided to follow tradition, toting in a mushroom tortellini salad with marscapone, corn on the cob with feta-mint butter, black bean and corn salad, mixed berries with brandy syrup, a berry buckle and several bottles of wine.  We blindly set up our spread by the pale light of the distant stage, observing as we did several of our neighbors’ citronella-scented candelabras, cut-crystal wineglasses and tables adorned with flower arrangements.  Honestly, such accoutrements were the norm.  We stood out (sat out?) by having mismatched blankets and no chairs — though our hurried discussion of this past month’s book might have also had something to do with it.

Lost City RadioWe had read Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcón; it’s the story of insurrection in an unidentified South American country, and how lives are changed as a result.  The main character hosts the nation’s most popular radio show; each week, Norma reads an ever-expanding list of missing people.  As a result, listeners are reunited with their loved ones, though, ironically, Norma still searches desperately for her own missing person: her husband.

The aspect of the novel that I thought the most interesting was something quite small — the fascistic government that emerges after the war renames all populated areas with numbers.  The larger the city, the smaller the number.  To speak a city’s name rather than its number is highly punishable.  I found this tiny little detail fascinating.

In general, it seemed we had mixed feelings on Lost City Radio, but I can’t say for certain, as we were more focused on the evening’s music than on the book.  Please don’t blame either the novel or book club for that.  Not much could compete with canons, fireworks and the symphony — not even our appetites.  Which is really saying something.

* This is a little geeky of me to admit, but I kinda love how these three authors all have double Ls in their surnames.
** I should mention, I think, that I was raised almost entirely on classical music, and my love of it might also be interpreted as a little geeky.

Book Club Hits the Road… Again.

Bel CantoI don’t think I’m capable of putting into coherent English how pleased I was when my book club chose Ann Patchett‘s Bel Canto as our latest read.  See, the novel has without a doubt been one of my favorites for years; in fact, I reread it every twelve months or so.  No lie.  Also, everyone I’ve ever suggested the book to has loved it — honestly.  Here’s the story:

Bel Canto is set in an unspecified South American country, where an elaborate party is taking place at the vice president’s mansion.  Government officials and entrepreneurs are present to celebrate the fifty-third birthday of a visiting Japanese businessman, as well as watch the performance of a celebrated opera singer.  The intimate concert is interrupted by a terrorist group, who then takes the entire house — servants, guests and opera singer — captive.  Eventually, some of the hostages are released, leaving only a handful to be guarded by the terrorists.

What unfolds in Patchett’s three hundred pages is wholly unpredictable, indescribably lovely and utterly devastating; the plot was inspired by a similar event which took place in Peru during the mid-nineties, though Patchett spins what could have been a perfectly good fact-based thriller into something leagues more heartbreaking, emboldened and new.  Even now, years after I first cracked its spine, Bel Canto still gracefully slides past my grumpy, gloomy demeanor, and gently leads me through its pages.  It also led to some fantastic conversation in New Hampshire, where we had carpooled in order to visit the Currier Museum of Art and a very special property that is part of the collection.  The book we had read previous to Bel Canto was Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, the fictionalized account of architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his mistress Martha Borthwick Cheney; it seemed only fitting to travel to the only Wright home located in New England that is open to the general public.

Zimmerman House, 1The Currier’s Wright is called the Isadore J. and Lucille Zimmerman House, after the husband and wife who commissioned the architect to design them not only a home to fit their lifestyle, but also interiors, landscaping and a mailbox that also suited their needs.  In a sense, our docents informed us, the Zimmermans were Wright’s ideal clients, deferring to him in all matters related to their home.  Because of this relationship with these clients, Wright’s radical and nontraditional vision was truly able to flourish — it thrives even today, almost sixty years after the project was completed.

Zimmerman KitchenEven if you’re not like me and neither design nor architecture interests you, I’m certain that the Zimmerman house would mesmerize you conclusively.  Let’s not even talk about the clever, well-thought-out details like the wall of windows that fully capture Lucille Zimmerman’s beloved garden from each and every room or the in-floor heating that runs beneath the length of the home.  I’ll skip all that specifically to discuss this: the Zimmermans were the only people to ever live in this home.  They bequeathed the structure to the Currier, the board of which left the house exactly as Isadore and Lucille did.  Those are Lucille’s dresses hanging in the bedroom closet, Isadore’s books on the shelves, their collection of pottery catching your eye.  The slim kitchen (scanned from a postcard I purchased in the gift store; interior photography is not permitted) is stocked with their pots and pans, their coffee tins, their dishtowels.  It is also the Zimmermans’ ashes interred together in a corner of the yard underneath a memorial plaque, overlooking the home they loved.  How much more fascinating does it get than that?

Note: Visitors may tour the Zimmerman House by reservation only.  The Currier offers several different tours throughout the year.  Click on the photo of the house for a four-picture slideshow of the exterior.

Currier Museum of Art
150 Ash Street
Manchester, New Hampshire 03104

Currier Museum of Art
150 Ash Street
Manchester, New Hampshire 03104

Book Club Oscar Party.

emily-post Once my book club decided that Laura Claridge‘s biography of Emily Post was our next read, the emails between us started flying with almost more speed than usual.  We had already decided to meet on the twenty-second, not realizing that evening was the Academy Awards.

“We could do an Emily Post/Oscars hybrid theme for food,” Sarah wrote. “I’m not really sure what that means. Perhaps finger foods and a fancy drink or tea, and everyone should wear pearls.”

“I love cocktails and pearls,” Stephanie responded, adding, “and that’s kind of like a bachelorette party*, minus the cheesy condom shirts and the stop at Dick’s Last Resort, so yes!  This sounds perfect!”

We quickly started suggesting possible bite-sized snacks for the evening; I had been looking for an excuse to try out a recipe for gougères, so I used the get-together as the reason to give Dorie Greenspan‘s version a try — but if I had really been on top of things I would have dug out Ruth Reichl‘s recipe from Garlic and Sapphires, since book club had previously read her other memoir, Tender at the Bone.  Oh well.  I mean, I need little justification to make something warm with cheese, and Ms. Greenspan’s puffs came out wonderfully.  Next time, it’s Reichl all the way.

When we gathered at Sarah’s some of us were toting copies of Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners, ready to discuss etiquette, Oscar ensembles and Emily — though I feel like I have to tell you we spent more the time commenting on Kunio Kato.  Melissa valiantly tried to keep us on track during the commercial breaks, hurriedly addressing Ms. Post’s life and legacy, but really we were all too busy eating to contribute much to the conversation.

I am, of course, talking about myself when I say this.  In my defense: how eager would you be to review the contents of a book — no matter how much you enjoyed it — if there was Champagne, spanikopita, chocolate-dipped strawberries and a twirling Hugh Jackman to distract you?

That’s what I thought.

Gougères, from Dorie Greenspan
Makes about thirty-six puffs

½ cup whole milk
½ cup water
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
5 large eggs, at room temperature
1 ½ cups coarsely grated cheese, such as Gruyère or Cheddar (or a mixture of smoked and regular cheese)

  1. Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 375°.  Line two baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper.
  2. Bring the milk, water, butter, and salt to a rapid boil over high heat in a heavy-bottomed 2-quart saucepan.  Add the flour all at once, lower the heat to medium-low and quickly start stirring energetically with a wooden spoon.  The dough will come together and a light crust will form on the bottom of the pan.  Keep stirring — with vigor — another 2 to 3 minutes to dry the dough.  The dough should now be very smooth.
  3. Turn the dough into the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or you can continue by hand).  Add the eggs one by one and beat, beat, beat until the dough is thick and shiny.  Don’t be concerned if the dough falls apart — by the time the third egg goes in, the dough will come together again.  Beat in the grated cheese.  Once the dough is completed, it should be used immediately.
  4. Using about 1 tablespoon of dough for each gougère, drop the dough from a spoon onto the lined baking sheets, leaving about 2 inches of puff space between each mound of dough.
  5. Slide the baking sheets into the oven, bake for 15 minutes, then rotate the sheets from top to bottom and front to back.  Continue baking until the puffs are golden and firm, another 10 to 15 minutes.  Serve the gougères piping hot as soon as they come from the oven.

Note:  You can shape the gougères and freeze them for up to 2 months before you bake them.  There’s no need to defrost the frozen puffs, just bake them a couple of minutes more.

* We’re planning a book club bachelorette party.  No one’s getting married — we just think it’ll be fun.  And funny.

Valentine’s Visit, or Boston to Albany.

boston-to-albany11.51 am: Very crowded train, surprisingly so.  Don’t have a window seat, sadly, but hopefully my very nice neighbor is getting off before me so I can shift over.  The window seat is highly desired real estate, which its advantage of both privacy and sockets, meaning I can watch one of the silly movies I downloaded onto my laptop from the TiVo without anyone seeing my predilection for romantic comedies.  For now, I suppose, it’s just me and Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners.

11.56 am: And we’re off.

11.59 am: Back Bay.

12.03 pm: It is a gorgeous day, the kind that makes me wish I was either running around outside, or at home, asleep on the sofa.  On an unrelated note, the conductor just announced he’s expecting it to be an extremely crowded train.  Have my hopes for an eventual window seat been thoroughly dashed?

12.00 pm: Another conductor on the intercom now.  Apparently what I am on, this train, is only the “Massachusetts extension,” which will connect with the “New York extension” in Albany, therefore tripling its entire length before heading out to Chicago.  How fascinating — this train is like the necklace of snap-on beads I had as a girl.

12.13 pm: Oh no.  My neighbor is disembarking at Albany too.  It appears as though I am destined for a windowless ride.

12.22 pm: I think I might be onto something here.  The couple sitting in front of me is getting off somewhere initialed SPB.  Where could that be?  Is it before ALB?  If it is, I am totally getting that window seat.

12.24 pm: Framingham.  We have just passed a bar called The Happy Swallow.  I love it.

12.37 pm: When I was younger, I was hooked on a series of books called The Secret of the Unicorn Queen, which were reissued recently with horrible new cover art.  Regardless of their outward appearance, the books were about a girl from our world who gets transported (long story) to another full of magic, mystery and unicorns; whenever we went on long car trips, I would imagine I was instead riding a unicorn.  This didn’t make the ride any shorter, but it was fun nevertheless.  Oh, and my unicorn was solid black with white stockings and a perfectly symmetrical blaze in the center of his forehead, from which his silver horn would emerge.  He didn’t have a name, by the way.  I used to just call him My Unicorn.

12.42 pm: Passing a frozen marsh with sleeping trees sticking out of the ice like needles on a porcupine’s back, if the porcupine had the mange.  You know, I’ve never seen a porcupine in real life and don’t know if they can even get the mange, but let’s just say they can.

12.47 pm: Depressing-looking warehouse on a shabby rust-colored parcel of land.

12.54 pm: Worcester.  How did that word ever start getting pronounced Woosta?

1.04 pm: I am getting sleepy but I’m scared that if I give in to my tiredness, I will lose the opportunity to swap seats.  But my eyelids are so heavy.

1.11 pm: Woods, ice-covered hills, sheep and horses whose steaming breath I can imagine casting shadows in the sun.

1.24 pm: All right, I’m going to sleep.  For the record, Emily Post didn’t do this to me; I find the book very interesting, and am really looking forward to chatting about it at book club next weekend.  My drowsiness has more to do with my going to bed past two and waking up at seven.

2.00 pm: Apparently we are coming up to Springfield, which is supposedly what SPB stands for.  I must pounce on those seats.

2.04 pm: Ah, a window, how lovely.

2.08 pm: Springfield, under a sky streaked with clouds.

iq2.12 pm: I’m watching I.Q., which I remember enjoying very much when I was in high school.  It’s about Einstein and love — what’s not to like?  Plus, there is a quartet of elderly men who speak in Germanic accents…  fantastic.

2.17 pm: Moving again, this time over water, via a bridge of course.  How strange would it be if suddenly the train could levitate, or operate over water?

2.24 pm: The kid who took my former seat is 1) a loud talker who 2) must be on the phone at all times.  I’ve got I.Q. on at maximum volume and yet I have more of a handle on this kid’s girl issues than I do on Tim Robbins and Meg Ryan.

2.32 pm: Apparently, the kid behind me wants to go to a party tonight with a certain girl, who has told him that she would like to go, but won’t because she only can stay for fifteen minutes.  He thinks this is a lie and is frustrated.  There is also something about eleven dollars, but I need to hear more before I can fully understand the problem.

2.42 pm: The kid is off the phone!

2.43 pm: The kid is back on the phone.  He kind of wants to see “that movie with Drew Barrymore.”

2.55 pm: The kid is picking up Kaylie at 4.30, after which they will go to dinner.  Then, they’re going to meet up with Steph and Rob and go to either He’s Just Not That Into You or Friday the Thirteenth, depending on what’s showing at the more convenient time.

3.03 pm: A bit of a waterfall, one that looks like it would be fun to raft.  After my maiden rafting voyage, I got off the river with a black eye, my very first.  I wore it like a badge, a brooch, a medal.  It was a great time.

3.17 pm: I’ve lost track of how many abandoned or abandoned-looking buildings we’ve passed.  What could they all have been for?  What were they full of, and why?  And why were they left to fall into disrepair?  How much have those windows seen, or those walls, or each brick?

3.23 pm: There is an adorable little baby on the train, maybe something like two years old.  I can’t remember how many times the people who I can only assume are his parents have walked him up and down the car aisle.  Honestly, until he passes, I’ve forgotten he’s even in this carriage because he’s so quiet and mid-mannered, unlike most babies.  He just walked up to me and placed his hand gently on my thigh.  Very forward.  His mother, quite young, gasped and said, “I knew he was a flirt, but this is ridiculous!”  He’s so adorable, his cheekiness is completely excusable.

3.33 pm: I have noticed that the kid on the phone says the word okay as though it has three syllables and not just two.  Oh-kay-ay.

3.40 pm: It’s always a little awkward when a person by herself, such as me, starts to giggle uncontrollably to herself, as I am doing right now.   Oh, romantic comedies!  Unrelated: Meg Ryan’s got this killer black and white dress in this film that I would happily wear today, tomorrow, forever.

3.46 pm: Pittsfield, where there is much more snow than in Boston.

chloe-audrey-amelias-butt3:53 pm: Marcella just sent me a picture of three of the dogs currently at her house.   At first, I think the photo is only of Chloe the Rottweiler/German Shepherd mix and Audrey the yellow Lab.  Upon second glance, I realize Amelia Bedelia the Peke-a-poo is in the photo too; it’s her curly butt visible next to Audrey.  Not pictured, Nathan and Niña, the Daschunds.

3.59 pm: Finished I.Q., back to Emily Post.

4.06 pm: I don’t think I would like to live so close to the train tracks as some of these houses.  It’s not so much the noise, which would undoubtedly irritate me most nights, but instead the thought of possibilities passing by.  People en route to a place which is not here, and all that — this would be unbearable.  We also just flew by six houses, completely identical in every fashion except for color, by which I mean different shades of white: stark white, creamy white, blueish white, yellowed white, pinky white, greenish white.  This is near Austerlitz, New York, by the way; now we’re running parallel to the Thruway, which makes me think, What did this all look like, before we put our irremovable stamp on it? Though there are patches thickly covered in trees, I don’t think that makes it any easier to imagine this land covered with nothing but.  There are traces of us everywhere, and by that I mean barbed fences, litter and oxidized signs nailed to the occasional trunk.

apartment-life4:11 pm: Now listening to Ivy’s “Get Out of the City” off of Apartment Life, all of which is apropos (which is one of my all-time favorite words, along with vermillion, ecclesiastical and cacophony).

4.19 pm: Passing by another series of warehouses.  Each window has been smashed.  By whom?  When?  These are questions I will never know the answer to.

4.24 pm: Not that I’ve been spying on her or anything, but the woman sitting across from me has been staring ad her face reflected in a compact mirror for something like fifteen minutes.  She’s not putting on lipstick or retouching her eye shadow — she’s just staring.

4.33 pm: A field with snow melted on it in such a way it looks like glaze on a cupcake.  I wonder if any rabbits live there.

4.37 pm: We have stopped, for reasons unknown.  The last time I took the train to Albany we stopped just outside the city as well, but because buffalo were crossing the tracks and refused to pick up the pace.

4.44 pm: Moving again.  No buffalo though, that I can see.

4.50 pm: I’m here…!

Musing, Rambling, Celebrating…?

garlicPerhaps I’m a little nuts, but I think the cross-section of a garlic bulb is one of the prettiest things on earth.  The smell of a raw garlic bulb sliced open is another thing altogether, but its middle is nice, all tightly-layered and pressed together, each little nugget with a golden yellow eye in its center.  I won’t be persuaded on this: I think it is wonderful.

On an unrelated note, I browned some chicken thighs the other evening; when they cooled, I tore off their skins.  The recipe I was following indicated I should discard this, the crisped-up skin, but I couldn’t resist having a taste.  Fatty skin, how lovely…  I probably would have crunched on the skin of all eight thighs if I didn’t stop myself, though I couldn’t help but yearn yet again (again, or still?) for a dog — if we had a dog, I would have happily mixed my unwanted skin into his food bowl and watched as he fastidiously picked out all of the good bits.  This dream dog of mine, he would love me.  He would probably also be very fat.

Another non sequitur:  today marks the one year anniversary of this mostly culinary, vaguely literary and somewhat travel-oriented experiment of mine. Isn’t it spectacular, what can take place in three-hundred and sixty-five days?  Here’s a breakdown for you:

  • 254 posts
  • 126 meals out
  • 85 books read
  • 53 recipes
  • 10 trips
  • 8 get-togethers with book club
  • 2 digital cameras
  • 1 supper club dinner

And so, here I am, one year later: infinitely happier, metaphorically fatter and undeviatingly hungrier.  Hopefully you all feel the same.  Thank you so much for reading.

Tea with Book Club.

Here’s how book club usually works:

  1. Amanda, Darlington, Heather, Melissa, Sarah, Stephanie and I trickle in, toting the food we’ve brought to share.
  2. We set up the food and catch up with what’s been going on with each other since we last got together.
  3. We load up our plates.
  4. We discuss the book in between snacking.
  5. Somehow, we always end up talking about strange things to say to our bedmates.
  6. We eat some more.

Last week was no different. *

innocent-traitor1We gathered at Darlington’s place in Harvard Square for what we were calling a high tea, even though it was only ten o’clock in the morning.   We chose tea rather than breakfast or brunch as  a wink to our book, the Britain-based Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir.

That this month’s book was my pick — we take turns choosing titles, the same way we alternate hosting duties — and it just so happened that Innocent Traitor climaxes at the Tower of London, where I spent a morning a few months ago. It was there that I first heard of our book’s protagonist, and where I learned of her place in English history.  Knowing how the story of the “innocent traitor” in question unfolded over four hundred and fifty years ago didn’t prevent me at all from thoroughly enjoying Weir’s work.

Something interesting is that Weir is a historian and a writer of narrative non-fiction; Innocent Traitor marks her first foray into fiction.  Here she writes a based-in-fact account of Lady Jane Grey‘s life during the sixteenth century.  Jane is portrayed as being an erudite girl and an avid student, wanting nothing more out of life than to continue her studies and live as a fervid Protestant.  Of course, Jane can’t get her way (if she didn’t face conflict, Weir wouldn’t have much of a novel).  It doesn’t help that Jane is a Tudor — the ruling family of England, Ireland and Wales  from 1485 to 1603 — and therefore has a something of a shot of wearing the a crown.  Positioned by her parents and ambitious men to be the next Queen of England after Edward VI dies of “consumption,” Jane soon finds hers incarcerated in the Tower.

book-group-1We traded opinions on both Weir and Jane while we balanced our heavy plates on our knees; I shared how I (uncharacteristically) cried cried cried earlier in the week because Weir’s Jane is like a candle underneath a glass dome: burning brighter and brighter until all the air is consumed.  Truly, even if you know the real story of Jane and her time, Innocent Traitor will take hold of your shirtsleeves and not let go until you’ve reached the end.  At that point, you may cry.  You’ve been warned.

Food-wise, we found ourselves faced with a feast, as usual.  Stephanie assembled tea sandwiches spread with cream cheese, layered with baby cucumbers and sprinkled with herbs; Heather rolled cheese and salmon into spirals wrapped in spinach-flavored tortillas; Amanda had made scones sweetened with pecans and dried fruit; and the day before I baked a cake made only of clementines, eggs, sugar, nuts and little else.  My mother used to make cakes similar to this one, and the entire house would smell sunny and warm, even on the coldest winter days, until the last slice mysteriously went missing.

For the record, my house still smells like sunshine.

Clementine Cake, from Nigella Lawson via Deb at Smitten Kitchen
Makes eight portions.

4to 5 clementines, about 1 pound total weight
6 eggs
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
2 1/3 cups ground almonds (I used walnuts since that’s not only what I had on hand, but also because that’s what my mother uses in her citrus cakes.)
1 heaping teaspoon baking powder

  1. Put the clementines in a pot with cold water to cover, bring to the boil, and cook for 2 hours. Drain and, when cool, cut each clementine in half and remove the seeds. Then finely chop the skins, pith, and fruit in a food processor or by hand.
  2. Preheat the oven to 375°; butter and line an 8-inch springform pan with parchment paper.  (I used a 9-inch, as that’s what I own, and the cake turned out fine.)
  3. Beat the eggs. Add the sugar, almonds, and baking powder. Mix well, adding the chopped clementines.  Pour the cake mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 1 hour, when a skewer will come out clean.  If necessary, cover the cake with foil after about 40 minutes to stop the top from burning. Remove from the oven and leave to cool, in the pan on a rack. When the cake is cold, take it out of the pan.

Note:  If you do cover your cake with foil, I suggest poking a few toothpicks, skewers or similar into the top and creating a foil tent; mine stuck.

* There was a slight variation this month, as we played a game.  Amanda had a stack of cards, each depicting a portrait of one of England’s reigning monarch.  She had shuffled them and divided them amongst us; we then put them in order, lining them up chronologically across the windowpanes.  It was more fun than it sounds.  And Lady Jane, the Nine Days’ Queen, was not amongst the rulers.  She was mentioned a few times though.

On Books + Slicing Onions.

This is how I spent the day: lolling in bed, stocking up at the grocery store before The Big Storm, then lolling on the sofa.  Oh, it was tiring.  I’m being half-serious here — I was lolling with the latest book club selection:  Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir, which is such an involving read that I couldn’t bear to be away from it for too long.  It also got me incredibly emotional; I was about a gasp and a half away from bawling my eyes out, something I very rarely do.  Honestly, the crying was so bad that at one point I turned to Keith and said, “If we had a puppy, I would be hugging it right now.  Will you be my puppy?”  And so he patted me on the back while I left an imprint of my tear-soaked face on his shirt, quite similarly to what Chuck Palahniuk‘s narrator does to Bob’s T in Fight Club.  Minus the testicular cancer, chaos and commentary on consumerism.

caramelized-onions1After I calmed myself down a bit, I headed to the kitchen to start caramelizing the onions for dinner tonight and for another meal later in the week.  Here’s a handy little trick I discovered:  if you want to avoid tearing up while slicing an onion, it helps to be crying already.  Don’t get me wrong — there’s no way that crying is going to prevent the burning sensation you’re going to feel behind your eyes the moment after you put your knife to an onion.  You’ll just be feeling so terrible already that you won’t mind the extra tears.

Okay, maybe that’s not necessarily the truth, but it kinda worked for me.

Anyway, tomorrow I’ll be making mejadara but tonight we’ll share with our friend Melissa a very unseasonal pizza, since it features fresh basil.  Though summer is months away, this is an incredibly light, easy-to-make meal that will make you feel as though its at least fifty degrees warmer outside.

pizzaA few notes about this dish…

In order for a pizza to be a pizza, it requires a bready, doughy crust.  Thing is, as I have said repeatedly, I am terrified of yeast.  Therefore, I buy my doughs or use a pre-made shell.  If you don’t have the same hang up, good for you — I’m sure your pizza will be indescribably fantastic.  If you too are frightened by yeast, rest assured that you won’t have to face your fear in order to enjoy a sweet and tangy dinner.

You can, of course, make your own sauce — and should! — but only when tomatoes are in season in order to get the fullest flavor.  When buying bottled, I like Enrico’s All Natural.

Lastly, the recipe calls for oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes.  The oil really does make all the difference, otherwise you’ll end up with tomato-flavored bark encircling your pizza.  That said, it is extremely important to drain the oil, otherwise you’ll have in your hands an utterly greasy mess.

(Unrelated:  I finally have a camera again and am in love.)

Caramelized Onion and Goat Cheese Pizza, from Cooking Light.
Makes six to eight portions.

2 teaspoons olive oil
1 thinly sliced onion, separated into rings
1 pre-made pizza crust
½ cup pizza sauce
¼ cup oil-packed julienned sun-dried tomatoes, drained
2/3 cup crumbled goat cheese
¼ cup chopped fresh basil

  1. Preheat oven to 450°.  Heat olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion; cover and cook for 3 minutes. Uncover and cook for 11 minutes or until golden brown, stirring frequently.
  2. Place the pizza crust on a baking sheet. Combine the sauce and tomatoes. Spread sauce mixture over pizza crust. Top with onion and cheese. Bake at 450° for 10 minutes or until crust is golden brown. Sprinkle with basil. Cut into wedges and serve.