Monday, May 16, 2011

Heart and Soul

When my turn rolled around to choose something for book club, I was thrilled and relieved to see a new story out by one of my favorite authors, Maeve Binchy.  Heart and Soul seemed like a perfect pick, since I already owned all of Maeve’s previous efforts and by the looks of my dog-eared copies of (especially) Tara Road, Circle of Friends and Scarlet Feather, I couldn’t quit re-reading them.  (Here’s a tip:  if you love an author, never buy the mass market paperback version.  It is crap and will disintegrate, especially if you drop it in the bathtub.)  What I discovered with this book is that sometimes, even if you love a book, it’s not a great pick for a book club.  While the story was touching and classic Binchy, it didn’t provide enough meat or controversy  to really get a good discussion going.  We mostly agreed that we liked the book, but the debate never took off since there was really nothing to debate.  The story follows Dr. Clara Casey, who agrees to oversee the setup of a heart clinic in Dublin.  Not only does she have to fight against the powers that be in her professional life, but she has an ex-husband who doesn’t really understand what being an “ex” means, two grown but immature and spoiled daughters whose every interaction with their mother is punctuated with sighs and eye rolling, and a hatchet-faced disapproving mother.  I don’t know why I wrote “hatchet-faced” because I don’t actually talk like that, but it seemed appropriate in a book review.  Maybe not.  Anyway, the story progresses pretty typically with a motley array of characters coming together, lives predictably intertwining until the jerks get what they deserve and the worthy find love and happiness.  While the author has used this same formula over and over again, her character development and writing style always have me coming back for more.

Since this was my first shot at hosting book club, I needed everything to be perfect.   Unfortunately, at the time, I was living in a 32 foot travel trailer with my husband and two kids while we were trying to build our new house.  (I don’t recommend it.)  It seemed like hosting a dinner and discussion for six people in the trailer wasn’t the best idea, but now that I look back on it, it had great potential for hilarity, giving a great story for when we’re famous book reviewers.  “Why yes, E! News, we WERE shoehorned into a 1996 Prowler while we talked books and took turns sitting at the pullout couch/kids’ bed.  And it was the time of our lives.”

I ended up having the dinner at Andrea’s house so there would be room for everyone to mingle and we wouldn’t be pinballing off each other all night.  I based the meal off of a scene that happened very early in the book.  Clara was coming home to have dinner with her two grown daughters and had to stop at the market to get pasta sauce.  She ended up buying three different kinds because her daughters were so picky that she was hoping at least one of the sauces would satisfy.  (What finicky brats!)  My picks were a marinara sauce with mushrooms and black olives, a garlicky alfredo sauce and classic pesto sauce.  We also had a green salad, garlic bread and red wine.
For dessert, I planned on making a classic Irish shortbread cookie with a side of tropical fruit compote.  Andrea’s oven decided it wasn’t feeling the cookies (it might have been prejudiced against the Irish) and would only heat to 250 degrees, so we warmed the dough in the oven for a while, then gave up.  Andrea’s mom, Cynthia, saved the day by coming over, shuttling the dough to her house and finishing the baking there.  She then brought the cookies back, all warm and shortbready.  I don’t even think we gave her any of the cookies as a thank you.  My bad.  (Sorry, Cynthia!)  I don’t know if the two part cooking method was the trick or if the recipe I chose was just the bomb, but those were the best shortbread cookies I’ve ever eaten.  Here’s the recipe if you want to try them yourself:
Grandma’s Irish Shortbread
2 cups butter
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 cups flour

Bring butter to room temperature. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Cream the butter until it is the consistency of whipped cream. Beat in the sugar. Add salt. Add flour in 4 portions (one cup at a time) mixing well after each addition. Turn out onto a floured board and pat or roll to 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. Cut into shape desired with a cookie cutter. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake for about 20 minutes, or until lightly browned.
I served the warm cookies with a scoop of diced tropical fruit:  mango, papaya, kiwi, berries.  You could really use any fruit you wanted but it was a nice offset to the sweetness of the cookies.  I also made Irish coffee for everyone.  Mmmm!
For the book club memento, I made Irish coffee gift kits.  Each box had two glass Irish coffee mugs, airplane bottles of Jameson whiskey and Bailey’s Irish Cream, and a decorated recipe card for Irish coffee all nestled into a clump of Easter grass. 
When I made the Irish coffees for everyone with dessert, I used one of the mugs from each one’s gift box to make their drink.  Now that I think about that, it seems kindof tacky, but that’s just how I roll.  I know it didn’t turn out to be the perfect hosting gig, but it was a fun attempt and I’m so glad the gals added me to the group.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Caisse's Faux Gumbo

Inspired by our latest book selection, The Sharper the Knife, the Less You Cry, I decided to make Gombo de Paris avec Saucisse, les Crevettes et le Poulet aka Gumbo from Paris, with sausage, shrimp, and chicken (page 100-102).

My version was minus the shrimp and parsley because I just don't like them, minus the complicated roux because, well, it was just too complicated, minus the habaneros because I didn't want it to be too spicy, minus the okra because it was too slimy and discusting and I threw it away, and minus the lemon juice because I forgot to add it at the end....

Here's what it looked like.

In the expert culinary world I would have gotten an F and a, "that's not Gumbo" from the Chef. But taste tester friends said it was very good. I agree and I plan on keeping the recipe and making it again.

Although alot of "Meez Fleen's" Le Cordon Bleu experiences she shared grossed me out and the recipes intimidated me it was inspiration to try new foods.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Book Babes Off the Pages

Has anyone else noticed that lately in popular reference, book clubs have kind of taken a hit. The insinuation is, if you’re in a book club, you basically just crazy cat lady + friends. Just because you’re a reader doesn’t mean you’re tucked in at 9 with a cup of chamomile tea. So I thought I’d share some of the things us fellow book babes have been up to together, when we’re not buried in a book.

So I apologize in advance for this next sentence, but sometimes our adventures turn in to tongue twisters and I can't resist. 
Crystal and I (and our plus one creeps) ate at Red Robin then rocked out at the Rose Garden to Rise Against. Ha Ha, cheesy I know, I couldn't help myself. It was fun but sometime I felt like game about to be poached, check out the spotlights.

Then, sacrificing a good sleepin' in on a beautiful Sunday morning, Elisabeth and I and our hubbies ran the 8K Bridge to Brews. It was amazing, and you may think that 10 am is to early to appreciate a good refreshing Hefewiezin waiting at the finish line, but let me assure you, it's not.

And last but not least, Caisse, Elisabeth and I cheered on the home team at the Rose Garden. (I use the term 'home' loosely, as in 60 mile radius of home) Go Blazers! I mean, Maybe next year!!!

And at the end of this post I'm left wondering, are Sara and I fighting and I didn't know???


Monday, May 2, 2011

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

I want to write an honest review and to do so my conscience is forcing me to first make a disclaimer: I cannot recommend "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"--officially. To say it's disturbing would be an understatement. On Elisabeth's 'Clean-O-Meter' it's definitely a 10- 'read at your own risk and you didn't hear about it from me'. I read somewhere that the book's original Swedish title was "Men Who Hate Women". This should give you an indication as to the nature of this novel.

Just recently I skimmed the book before writing my review and found myself caught up in the story all over again. There's some financial jargon and lots of names to keep straight, which I was very unsuccessful at, but besides that it's definitely my type of book. It's modern, not a cheeseball cornfest, and has layers of plot and intrigue.

To give you the jist of it...Blomkvist and Salander work together to find out what happened to a woman with a shady family history. This is not your usual story of a journalist with a side kick, following clues and solving crimes. By the end of the book you might be wishing this was the usual story of a journalist with a side kick, solving crimes and kicking butt. That's how.... unusual this story is.

In developing Salander's character I have to say, "Bravo Steig!" I'm sure in the real world we would all shy away from put it nicely. She's cold, awkward and a social misfit and she prefers it that way. But reading the pages and learning why she's that way I came to understand and enjoy her. She's a super hero in a harsh and unfair world. Well, she doesn't have magical powers but her computer hacking skills and photographic memory are nearly superhuman. And she doesn't wear costumes but she has a dragon tattoo and fights against evil!!

Tea Time

The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet discusses the Japanese and Chinese along with some of their traditions. One that I found particularly interesting was their tea customs. It was considered rude or disrespectful to pour your own tea. Someone else pours the tea for you and you pour for them. In Japan the preparation and consuming of tea has become an art form.

I love that something as common as pouring tea became a symbol of showing respect and graciousness. I feel those qualities are lacking in our society. Living in a fast paced, me-first world made me long for those small but kind traditions.

Just recently some of my fellow book babes and I were invited to a ladies only tea party. We had to dress up (hats, gloves and all!) and sit sipping tea and eating petite-sized treats. It was so nice to pretend to be a lady for the day. Displaying your best manners and attempting to be dainty was actually fun and relaxing. We stayed there for almost three hours enjoying each others company. It was like a mini time-out from this crazy mess we live in.

I just read in a book about etiquette for a tea party, to start a tea tradition in your own home. In the evening pull out your teapot and cups. Make a cozy nook and relax with your husband, kids, cat or book. Discuss the day or revel in the quiet but above all use your manners! While this isn't something I can do everyday, I definitely want to incorporate this in my life. The question is, would my husband enjoy it or feel like he's attending a little girls tea party? Hmm, there's only one way to find out.