Sunday, October 30, 2011

It's the Great Pumpkin . . . Pie, That Is!

Continuing with our Halloween themed posts, this weekend's food post features pumpkin pie. Because any other Halloween themed food post just wouldn't be right without pumpkin pie. Or, you know, pumpkin at the very least. I don't make mine completely from scratch, instead I tend to use Libby's canned pumpkin. But if you want to do yours that way, get 1 sugar pumpkin. Scrape out all the innards (also known as seeds) and set them aside for toasting. Then scrape or cut the flesh of the pumpkin away from the outer shell and cook it until mashable. Voila!

What You'll Need
Large mixing bowl                                                          Measuring cups
2 glass pie plates                                                            Measuring spoons
Mixing spoon
2 cans pumpkin pie filling (30 oz)                                  2 tsp cinnamon 
2 cans evaporated milk (24 oz)                                      1 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups light brown sugar                                         1/2 tsp ground ginger
4 eggs                                                                              1/2 tsp nutmeg
2 pie shells                                                                      1/4 tsp ground cloves

Now Let's Make Pumpkin Pie
The great thing about this recipe is that it is super easy.  Ridiculously so (this is going to be a really short post, guys. What? Stop cheering!). Start by preheating your oven to 425F; don't forget, cause you definitely have to preheat on this one.

Line your pie plate with the pie crusts. (Again, I harbor a special loathing for doing pie crusts from scratch, so I did Pillsbury). Try to get the crust centered in the plate before you press it down and to the edges.  This will make doing the edges a lot easier.  Fold the excess pie crust into the shell and press into the sides.  This should create a smooth edge right at the rim of the pie plate.  Then, go around the pie plate and pinch the crust between your fingers, forming a small peak.  Repeat this process all around the pie shell, spacing your peaks evenly about a finger width apart.

Set your crusts aside and break out your large mixing bowl.  Now, I like to mix the filling one pie at a time, so that's what the instructions will do here, essentially halving the ingredients listed above. However, you're welcome to try it as is (that ups your chances of unevenly filled pies, though, and who wants that?). Add to your bowl 1 can (15 oz) of pumpkin pie filling and  1 can (12 oz) of evaporated milk (which is never as "evaporated" as I expect). Now measure out 3/4 cup of light brown sugar, making sure it's firmly packed into your measuring cup, and add it to the bowl.  Add two eggs, 1 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp nutmeg, 1/4 tsp ground ginger, and 1/8 tsp ground cloves.  Mix all this up well, making sure that the spices are thoroughly blended and there are no pumpkin filling lumps.   Pour the filling into one of your pie shells.  Rinse your bowl and repeat for the other shell. (Yes, I know that first picture is less than appetizing).

Bake the pies at 425F for 15 minutes. Go ahead and set a kitchen timer, since this really isn't one you can eyeball. After 15 minutes, reduce the heat to 350F and bake for an additional 40 minutes.  These pies should rise as they bake, so don't worry if the center becomes higher than the level of the pie plate; this is normal.  Remove pies from oven and set aside to cool. The pies may not seem firm when removed, but the center will set as they cool.  Serve warm with whipped cream, or store pies in refrigerator. (But until then, enjoy the before and after shots below)

"I want my pumpkin pie!"
This particular version is a fairly light, very (delightfully) creamy, not overly sweet pumpkin pie. Also, the subtle spicing balance flavors the pie while still allowing the pumpkiny taste to shine. It's the perfect after Thanksgiving dinner dessert.  And also, you have some very easy and yummy pumpkin pies with which to impress your friends!


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble

So, as you see, we're getting a little festive here at The Book Pantry.  In preparation for the upcoming All Hallow's Eve, I've decided to do some special, themed posts for the week.  Tonight's post will feature Halloween-themed books - for kids! (Because I'm too much of a fraidy cat to read something for adults).  Since this is a little different than your average book post and young children's books are a little on the short side, I'll be featuring a total of 4 books.  These range from cute to Halloweeny to down-right spooky, and hopefully you'll find something that'll fit the kid in your life (even if that's just you) from among them!

Squeeeeee! Kitty!
The Cute: Pumpkin Cat
This book was written and illustrated by Anne Mortimer and published by Katherine Tegen Books in 2011.

Pumpkin Cat is a pretty tame introduction to Halloween, since it's one nod to the holiday is the pumpkin theme. Otherwise, it's a book about gardening.  I love the cover (I mean, it's a black cat, come on!) and the illustrations.  Illustrations can make or break a children's book, and this one has adorable, realistic pictures done in paint (not sure what kind, but it doesn't look like watercolor) with nice vivid colors.  Mortimer incorporates a nice sense of movement and personality into her animals, which I found kept my attention engaged nicely. The story has a cute premise, featuring Cat who wants to know where pumpkins come from and Mouse who teaches Cat to grow one.  The book ends when the pumpkin is harvested and Mouse turns it into a surprise for Cat.  The book has a repetitious structure that's great for developing early literacy skills in kids, making it a nice choice from an enrichment standpoint, too.  I also thought the instructions for growing pumpkins at the end of the book was a neat addition and a potentially fun project. (And, did I mention the cat, cause there's a cat)

"I'll do you such a trick!"
The Halloweeny: The Vanishing Pumpkin
This book was written by Tony Johnston, illustrated by Tomie dePaola, and published by G.P. Putnam's Sons in 1983.

The Vanishing Pumpkin is one of my absolute favorite children's books, Halloween aside.  Growing up, this was the Night Before Christmas of Halloween in our house.  This book covers a range in audience, being tame enough to read to a very young toddler but complex enough to be enjoyed by older children (hey, I still love having read to me).  It again features repetition, but in a more complex form.  It builds on itself, which makes it easy to hold kids' attention and encourage their participation as they catch on to the form. It also features some really great alliteration ("in fact, they fairly flew").  All of which are great for building reading skills.  The illustrations are fun and very cartoon-like and look to be done with mixed media. The story follows an 800-year-old man and a 700-year-old woman on a search for their missing pumpkin and pumpkin pie. It provides a great opportunity to do some voices as you read, like the old man, old woman, various critters, and wizard (my Da did great voices). It's just an all-around great Halloween choice, so be prepared for multiple reading requests.

D'awww.  Kitty.
The Witchy: Cat Nights
This book was written and illustrated by Jane Manning and published by Greenwillow Books in 2008.

Cat Nights again features a story great for a range of ages in kids.  In this book, we meet Felicity, who just turned 263 years old, gaining the ability to change into a cat 8 times; she loves being a cat, but if she changes a 9th time she'll be stuck as a cat forever. You'll have a great time guessing what she'll choose to do.  I liked the names in the book: Wanda, Willa, and Woo are model witches, while Felicity is more feline.  This creates some nice (though subtle) letter associations for kids to pick up on.  The illustrations are also very nice, with a unique cartoony style done in watercolor. You'll love how cute the warty little witches (I know, sounds oxymoronic) and Felicty's orange cat form are. There's also a nifty note at the end that ties the premise of the book to the Irish mythology surrounding cat nights.  This is definitely a new favorite of mine.

Those pumpkins are awesome!
The Spooky: The Bones of Fred McFee
This book was written by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Kurt Cyrus, and published by Harcourt in 2002.

Let me just say that this book would have scared the pants off me as a kid (my imagination is way too active).  That said, it's not really a horribly scary book.  In the story, a brother and sister hang a plastic skeleton in a sycamore tree that does a little bit more than dance in the wind.  The book has some great features from a reading and literacy standpoint.  There is a very distinct rhyme scheme, alliteration, and a definite pattern to the rhythm of lines that creates a constant "sound" to the book.  This also adds to the spooky feel.  The artwork is in a comic book style that combines ink and watercolor.  The dark, graphic lines of the ink enhance the overall creepy factor.  It's a fun book, but only read it to kids if you want to spook them a bit (it'd be a great campfire story).

So, I hope this inspires you to grab a book and a kid (your own, of course, don't be a creeper) and read together.  Hopefully you'll have some time to scurry to a library or bookstore and snag some of these great Halloween picks.  In the mean time, know that these books come with the Sebastian R. Gato seal of approval:

My name is Sebastian R. Gato, and I approve of this message.
(Not pictured: Cat Nights)


Sunday, October 23, 2011

Best Thing Since Sliced Bread

Okay, okay, so to eat this Irish Soda Bread, technically you have to slice up the loaf.  Semantics.  Prior to tonight, I had never had nor really thought much about Irish Soda Bread.  I've read books, plays, and the like that mentioned it, but it never really occurred to me to try making it.  Let me just say, "Thank goodness I finally did." Because, yum. I got this recipe from the back of Karen Marie Moning's Dreamfever, though I did alter some ingredients and procedures to make it better. (I also left out the book's call for wriggling Unseelie flesh.  You're welcome). Irish Soda Bread is a thick bread, leavened (made to rise) by using baking soda rather than yeast.  Traditionally the bread simply consists of the base bread; however, additions of items like raisins or nuts can be made, as you see here.  I imagine that the bread would go really well with a nice stew, since the thickness would help sop up any broth.

What You'll Need
Large mixing bowl                                                        2 butter knives
Whisk                                                                            Small bowl
Measuring cups                                                             Wooden mixing spoon
Measuring spoons                                                          Large cast iron skillet
4 cups all-purpose flour, + some for shaping              4 Tbsp butter (1/2 stick)
2 Tbsp sugar                                                                 1 cup raisins
1 tsp salt                                                                        1 large egg
1 tsp baking soda                                                          1 3/4 cup buttermilk

Now Let's Make Irish Soda Bread
Whisk away
To begin, preheat the oven to 425F. Take your large mixing bowl and add the flour, sugar, salt, and baking soda. Whisk these ingredients together until evenly smooth in texture.  You can also use a sifter and sift them together, but whisking is just as effective with a lot less hassle and is less bulky.

Cut the butter into large chunks and soften it very slightly (about 10 seconds in a microwave if it wasn't already softened). Plop that into the flour mixture. Now, if you happen to have a pastry cutter around use that (fancy pants), otherwise, cut the butter into the flour mixture using your two butter knives.  When you get frustrated with that smash the butter into the flour mixture using the whisk (cause those wires are about the same as a pastry cutter, let's face it). When you're done, run your fingers through the mixture to make sure you've taken care of any large chunks of butter.  The flour mixture should now have a course meal texture (also known as chunky flour).

Once your butter is sufficiently cut in, add the raisins to the bowl and mix them in using your hands (if you're squeamish about sticking your hand - clean I hope - in food, you'll need to get over it quick; it only gets messier).

Crack an egg into your small bowl and beat the egg.  Add this to the flour along with the buttermilk.  Stir with your wooden spoon until all the flour is mixed in and dough is stiff.  Lightly flour your hands and begin to gently work the dough into a ball shape.  Do NOT knead the dough; if you over work it the soda bread will be tough. (unless of course you like to nosh on concrete) If the dough is too wet to work, gradually add small amounts of flour, working it in with your hands gently until dough is workable.  Keep in mind that you may need to wash the dough off your hands to form it completely, since the dough will stick to the dough on your hands rather than shaping.

When ready, remove the dough from the bowl and place it on a lightly floured surface (aka counter). Shape the dough into a round loaf.  Grease the cast iron skillet using what remains of your stick of butter. Just use the stick to do it, don't grease it with the whole thing). Rub the butter on both the base and sides of the skillet, but do not coat too heavily.  Place your dough in the center of the greased skillet.  Using one of your butter knives, score the top of the loaf in the shape of an X in order to open the loaf and allow the center to cook through.

Irish Soda Bread
Bake the loaf at 425F for 40-50 minutes until the bread is golden brown. You can tell if it is done by inserting a knife into the center; if it comes out clean, your soda bread is cooked.  Serve in slices with butter or along with a stew.  I for one, will be serving it next week along with Brunswich Stew. (Not the exact same loaf! Blegh.)  Mmmmmmm.  What would you serve it with?

Presented by my fabulous assistant


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

More from the Land of Faerie

The fourth installment of Karen Marie Moning's Fever Series, Dreamfever, sees our heroine finally begin to rise up from the dark, moving on to some more triumphant moments (though its still not all peaches and cream).  I have to say that blogging about a series is quite challenging; I was pretty gung ho when I started, since I love series. However, it's difficult to continue finding new topics or fresh ways to discuss old themes. I imagine its a smaller scale version of some of the challenges an author faces when writing an actual series, a challenge, I am pleased to say, that Moning continues to live up to.

The Basics
Moning, Karen Marie. Dreamfever. New York: Delacorte P., 2009. Print.

Dreamfever opens with Mac making a slow recovery from what was done to her in the previous novel, Faefever, helped along by our favorite enigma, Barrons.  The walls between Faerie and the human world have come crashing down after Halloween. The book follows Mac as she tries to organize and fight her foes, introducing Dani, a character from the previous books, as a more involved character and a sort of sidekick/ kid sister for Mac.

The Book
Speaking of Dani, she has quickly become one of my favorite characters, going from a not-so-developed side character in the earlier books to a more active figure in Dreamfever.  From the moment she takes over the first person narration of the book (briefly and during one of Mac's less than lucid moments), readers have a good idea of her spunky, brooding nature. It helps that the know-it-all, moody thirteen-year-old occupies a liminal space in life, with which many female readers will be familiar and can identify (and I'm sure my parents could recognize it as well. Heh heh).  Dani is both worldly, having the life experience to back up some of her bad attitude, and youthful, lacking the self-possessed maturity that only growing up can give you.  Aside from being an entertaining and engaging character, Dani serves a couple purposes for Moning's writing.  Firstly, it sets up Dani as an excellent lead for Moning's next set of Fever books. Secondly and most importantly to this particular series, Dani's sisterly relationship with Mac nicely mirrors Mac's relationship with her deceased sister Alina.  We are told in the earlier books that Mac looked up to her sister, a situation that is now reversed by Mac looking out for Dani and Dani's admiration of Mac.  This weaves a subtle signal throughout Dreamfever that indicates to readers Mac's new, stronger position and growth as a character.

In order to grow and continue, however, Mac must first recover from what was done to her.  This is a touchy part of the book, since after her return to awareness, Mac practically ignores what she suffered, only occasionally thinking about it with a tinge of horror.  I could see how this could be quite controversial, and some might suggest Moning sweeps the terrible violation Mac endured under the rug.  And yet, while I am by no means comfortable with the events in question, I think sometimes a great book should make you squirm. Furthermore, Moning's handling of the situation is in perfect keeping with Mac's character and her ostrich-like tendency of denial - her fatal flaw.

Barrons and Mac's relationship continues to be a delightful clashing and simultaneous attraction of wills. He helps Mac recover but immediately reverts to the distant and immutable character once she has.  Meanwhile, Mac continues to resent him, avoiding him for much of the book.  While this period apart is essential to the development of Mac's character, allowing her to grow a little on her own and test herself without Barrons to act as buffer and safety net. Only after she strikes out on her own for a while is Mac finally able to admit that there is more strength to be found in partnership with other characters.

Despite her acceptance of Barrons as an acceptable aid towards the end of the novel, he still remains shrouded in mystery. Only the tiniest of clues are revealed, never enough to solve him but always enough to keep us wanting to know more.  Nevertheless, I am convinced that Moning has finally provided us with some tangible evidence about Barrons essential nature in the last few chapters of Dreamfever.  The beast that comes to Mac's aid is surly and aggressive yet possessive and protective of Mac.  This interaction coupled with the references to Barrons's animal nature that have pervaded the series has me convince that Barrons and the beast are one and the same. Mac's horror at the end of Dreamfever only confirms this for me, since Barrons is the only character I can see her expressing such strong emotions for aside from Dani (who is clearly not involved here). But, due to a monstrously eeeevil cliffhanger, I will have to wait for Shadowfever before I find out if I'm right.  It makes me grateful that this part of the Fever series has already reached its conclusion with the fifth and final novel.

Now, since this is also a blog about food, I think I must address a recurring theme in the series: the cannibalization of Unseelie.  First and foremost, I must say blegh, blarg, and mumph. But let me explain.  Eating the foully evil Unseelie imbues the character with remarkable healing abilities and superhuman strength, stamina, and etc.  Great, right?  The Unseelie are all jerks and bad guys anyway, so who cares? Let's just say it's a rare book that I can't eat while reading, but I routinely have to stop when I encounter parts describing the imbibing of Unseelie.  Unseelie flesh is always living, even when removed from the body of its original owner, so it goes down . . . wriggling and trying to escape.  As if that weren't already enough for my overactive imagination, Mac informs me that Unseelie flesh is also primarily made up of chewy gristle, popping cartilage, and scads of bursting pustules.  Mmmmmm . . . tasty! But, Moning takes her delight in this theme a step further (clearly writing these books was getting to her) by appending a set of recipes to the back of Dreamfever.  These feature instructions for Irish soda bread; traditional Irish stew; buttermilk/strawberry scones; tea, aka finger, sandwiches; and Shepherd's pie.  All of which call for Unseelie flesh.  Needless to say I'm planning to feature the results of that Irish soda bread recipe as my next blog post.  Aren't you excited? (I can tell by your barely suppressed gags that you are. *nods head*).

  • For a synopsis of and excerpt from Dreamfever, see the book's webpage. I also recommend following the links on the sidebar to the previous books and to any deleted scenes offered.
  • Because every good fantasy realm need its own conference, I direct you towards Fevercon. (Frankly, though, the idea makes me giggle, but who am I to judge.) 


Monday, October 17, 2011

Good with Food!

Or so Coca-Cola advertisements once told us.  Tonight's food posting features another classically southern recipe: Coca-Cola cake.  If you live/ were raised in the South and have somehow missed out the sheer, blissful deliciousness that is Coca-Cola Cake, then you have been jipped, cheated, deprived even (I'm looking at you Mom and Dad).  But not to worry, because you can rectify that problem now!  I got this recipe, with some minor adjustments and expansions of my own, from the discussion guide for Mark Childress's Georgia Bottoms (which suspiciously resembles one on several recipe sites. I wonder who copied whom).  Although, I had to figure out the frosting for myself since the recipe simply tells you to use Coca-Cola frosting (Gee, thanks).

What You'll Need
Electric mixer                                                               1 knife for chopping
2 small mixing bowls                                                   Cutting board
1 medium mixing bowl                                                 13 x 9 casserole dish
Mixing spoon                                                                Whisk
Small Saucepan                                                            Small cooking spoon
Ingredients for Cake
1 cup Coca-Cola                                                            1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup buttermilk                                                        2 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour                                                2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup cocoa                                                                1 1/2 cups mini-marshmallows
1 tsp baking soda                                                          1 cup pecans, chopped
2 sticks butter, softened (1 cup)
Ingredients for Frosting
1 stick butter  16 oz powdered sugar                            16 oz confectioner's sugar
1/3 cup Coca-Cola                                                         1 Tbsp vanilla extract
3 Tbsp cocoa

Now Let's Make Coca-Cola Cake
Before we get down to the nitty gritty, let me make a quick note (veiled threat) about ingredients.  First, use real vanilla extract not the fake stuff (blegh!). Second, and most importantly, don't you dare use Diet Coke; it is not the same, so suck it up and deal with the calories (notice, I'm not even considering the possibility that someone might use Pepsi; you wouldn't do that, right? Right.)

Now whisk! Whisk, I said!
Start by preheating the oven to 350F.  In one of your small bowls, mix together 1 cup Coca-Cola and 1/2 cup buttermilk.  Set this aside.  In the other small bowl combine 2 cups flour, 1/4 cup cocoa, and 1 tsp baking soda.  Whisk these together until there are no lumpy bits (doesn't that sound tasty!). If you don't have a whisk handy, you can always use a fork; it'll take a little longer, but don't sweat the small stuff.

Creamy butter
Add 2 sticks of butter to your large mixing bowl. If the butter hasn't gotten soft yet, microwave it for about 20-30 seconds.  The trick is to get the butter soft but not melted.  Beat the butter at a low speed with your electric mixer until creamy (or if you are lacking a mixer, go to your Da's house to use his, like me. *hint, hint*).  Since I think that all soft butter is kind of creamy, I have thoughtfully provided you with a photo of this step.  Sweet? I know.

Still mixing at a low speed, begin gradually adding the 1 1/2 cups sugar.  Beat until well-blended and kind of fluffy.  Crack your two eggs into the bowl. If you get some egg shell in there, just wet your finger and pull it out; that way you don't have to chase the shell around the bowl for 5 minutes (ask me how I know, heh heh).  Add 2 tsp of vanilla, letting it run over a little as you measure it out for extra tastiness.  Beat eggs and vanilla into butter mixture at a low speed until thoroughly blended.

Begin adding the flour mixture and the Coca-Cola mixture to the batter, blending at a low speed.  Alternate between the two as you add, but make sure you begin and end with the flour mixture.  This is particularly important since the Coke, which makes the cake tender and fluffy, will also make your batter somewhat mealy until the next addition of dry ingredients (which looks a little funky, I know).  Make sure that each addition is well-blended before adding more.

Remove the large mixing bowl from the mixer.  Measure out 1 1/2 cups of marshmallows, packing them down nice and tight as you do so (what can I say, I like marshmallows).  Add them to the batter, and stir them in with your mixing spoon.  Do NOT try to blend the marshmallows in with the mixer.  As you stir, make sure the marshmallows get mixed evenly throughout your batter; you don't want a concentration of marshmallows anywhere.

Pour the batter into a greased 13 x 9 inch casserole dish or pan.  Scrape the bowl thoroughly to get as much battery goodness into the cake as possible (let's not be wasteful, y'all), and spread the batter into the pan until all parts are even.  It's a thick batter, so you'll probably have to do a lot of scraping and spooning.  Bake the cake at 350F for 30-40 minutes.  When the cake is done a knife inserted into the middle will come out clean.

Sticky goodness
While the cake is cooling a bit, start preparing your Coca-Cola Frosting.   Cut one stick of butter into chunks into your small saucepan. Add the 1/3 cup Coca-Cola and 3 Tbsp cocoa. Heat over medium high heat, stirring frequently, until the butter is melted and the frosting comes to a light boil.  Remove from heat and whisk in the confectioner's sugar and 1 Tbsp vanilla.  Again, if you don't have a whisk, and fork will do fine.

No cake picture for you!
Chop up some pecans into coarse pieces until you have 1 cup. Sprinkle the pecans over the top of the cake. Then, pour the frosting over your cake, spreading it evenly over the top of the cake so that it reaches all the edges and there are no bare bits.  This way your pecans get frosted, too.  However, if you prefer, you can frost the cake and then add the pecans. Both are equally tasty options. The longer the frosted cake sits, the more you'll notice the top of the frosting hardening a bit.  This is normal.

This cake is not a lie.
Let the cake cool for about 10-15 more minutes. Cut the cakes into squares and serve! My picture isn't as pretty as usual, because I got excited and cut the cake a little to soon.  Thus, my square didn't stay geometric, and went plop instead.  Still nommy! Now, where are my leftovers?


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Southern Bottoms, I Mean, Belles

A few weeks ago I realized that my blog and upcoming reading list was a little light on male authors.  It's not that I don't like the stuff men write, I just tend to prefer classics (and really, who can fault me for preferring Dickens?). So, my goal of late has been to find more contemporary male authors that I actually enjoy reading.  I discovered that many such authors can be found in the young adult and fantasy/science fiction genres, but I was determined to branch out further.  In doing so, I followed a recommendation and discovered Mark Childress and his latest novel, Georgia Bottoms, which I had been eyeing on the new fiction shelves for some time. (The shoes on the cover are what did me in.)

The Basics
Childress, Mark. Georgia Bottoms. New York: Little Brown and Co., 2011. Print.

Mark Childress has written seven novels and three children's books, as well as articles for various prominent periodicals. Childress was born in Monroeville, Alabama, and his southern roots certainly show through in Georgia Bottoms, a novel so steeped in the south that you can practically see Tara on the horizon.  Georgia Bottoms follows the life of its titular heroine as she endeavors (I had written struggles, but southern women simply don't do that) to juggle her six lovers.  Well-liked in her town and viewed as a good Southern Belle and Baptist, it is imperative for Georgia to keep her lovers and their "gifts" a secret. Hilarious, selfish, charming, and infuriating, Georgia keeps readers guessing and fascinated.

The Book
I love the way Georgia Bottoms captures a small slice of southern small-town culture.  It gives readers a taste of the society and complex social rules and interactions that govern life in the south.  Childress infuses a distinct sense of southernness in his novel that I recognized from the start and found entirely relatable and believable. Sometimes this taste of the south crops up as Georgia guides readers through the niceties of calling on an acquaintance.  Or, it's present in the pernicious racial politics that still stifle life in the South. At other times, it appears as Georgia organizes a formal dinner party, complete with pimento cheese and chicken salad sandwiches (served in triangles if she's worth her salt). Childress neither romanticizes nor demonizes life in the South; instead, he simply presents a picture of such a life, good and bad just as anywhere else.

I also enjoyed the fact that, while you'd think this would be a book about sex, it is nothing of the sort.  In fact, the sexual aspect of the book plays third fiddle to Georgia's personality and interactions with  others (thank goodness, since what there is turns me into a nine year old going "groooooooossss").  The few moments that actually focus on Georgia's love life are there to reveal the intricacy of Georgia's personality: her ability to act, her distance and lack of real emotion for her lovers, and her sense of responsibility to provide for her family.  It also illuminates her capacity for denial; Georgia is very determined that she is the lover of these six men (as opposed to mistress or prosititute), and she insists to herself that the gifts left by her lovers are freely given and unsolicited.

Meanwhile, the issue of race permeates the book in a very interesting way.  Readers are exposed to several aspects of race in the South (though by no means all). We have Georgia's hugely racist and senile mother, who provides occasional comic relief through her forgetfulness, but often appalls reader's with her racist vitriol.  Then for part of the book we loosely follow (because Georgia rarely focuses on events outside herself) the successful fight to finally integrate the community of Six Points by annexing the nearby African American neighborhood.  Meanwhile, Georgia herself provides a look at interracial relationships through her high school fling with Skiff and the result.  Childress provides and interesting and varied insight that engages readers' in a much larger conversation.

Georgia herself is a difficult character to come to terms with as a reader; I found her to be an odd mixture of relatable and alien, sympathetic and reprehensible.  On the one hand, I can identify with her participation in and knowledge of Southern society, her love and expertise at cooking (aren't I modest today), her roll as a hostess, her sense of hospitality.  On the other hand, she has a lot of traits that are harder to identify with, such as her bouts of extreme selfishness and her slutty side that often eyes other people's husbands.  She's not very sympathatic when she reveals her mean side: a Southern "bless your heart" sort of insult, which has its place, but which seems to color every thought she has about other people.  At the same time, I felt sorry for her as she dealt, quite dutifully, with an aging mother with dementia and a spoiled, lay-about, criminal brother.  Georgia makes for an exciting read, since you're never quite sure what she's going to throw at you next, and it's not until the end that you come down firmly on her side (or at least, I did).

Overall, I enjoyed the novel quite a bit (I finished it in one day) and found it refreshing to branch out for a change.  Georgia Bottoms was an amusing mix of humor and drama in the South, and I highly recommend picking it up.

  • Check Mark Childress's website for more information about the author and his other writings. 
  • Check out this book discussion guide for Georgia Bottoms, which features the recipe for Coca-Cola Cake that will be the focus of my weekend food post.
  • And don't neglect Childress's Facebook page.


Sunday, October 9, 2011

Sugar and Spice

And yes, both items are ingredients in today's recipe post on Spiced Sausage and Rice. (You can just stop "eeewww"ing about the sugar in a sausage dish).  This is one of those dishes you make when you realize that you're going to have to make do with what's on hand because you were to busy (read, lazy) to go grocery shopping.  This particular dish came out of a throw-something-together night with friends; it turned out so well that I have since taken it and tweaked it until it was an actual recipe.  The recipe below serves 2 - 3 people without side dishes and can be easily doubled if needed.

What You'll Need
1 medium pan                                                                 1 cutting board
1 small pot                                                                      1 knife for slicing
1 cooking spoon                                                              1 knife for chopping
Measuring cups
1 cup jasmine rice                                                          1/2 Tbsp ground cardamom
5 chicken sausages                                                         1/2 Tbsp cinnamon
1 small yellow onion*                                                     Dash ground coriander
1/2 red or green bell pepper*                                         Small dash ground cloves
1 small handful light brown sugar                                 Olive oil

Now Let's Make Spiced Sausage and Rice
Double, double, toil and trouble
Measure out 1 cup of rice and set it to the side of the stove to be on hand later (or, you know, run around like a chicken with its head cut off like I do when I forget to measure out the rice, either way). Measure out 1 3/4 cup water and pour it into your small pot.  You can also follow the instructions on the back of the rice bag, but I find you get a dryer rice if you reduce the water by 1/4 to 1/3 cup.  Set the pot on the stove and turn heat to high to bring water to a boil.  Once water is boiling add rice and stir once.

Uncovered rice is indecent
Cover the rice and reduce heat to 2 or 3.  Now you can ignore the rice for a little while, fluffing it with a fork occasionally until done.  Meanwhile, get out your cutting board and peel and dice the small onion.  Put a smidge of olive oil into the medium pan and set the heat to medium.  Add the onions and saute.  While the onions are cooking, cut the bell pepper in half, saving one half for a later date.  Remove the core and seeds from the remaining half and dice it.  Add to medium pan to saute. ("why are there no pictures of this step?" you ask.  Because I needed to go to the store so badly that I didn't have them on hand. Fortunately onions and bell peppers are optional ingredients).

Chicken sausage sounds a little wrong
While the onions and peppers are sauteing, slice the chicken sausage into small dials about 1/3 of an inch thick.  I like to use an off-brand italian chicken sausage, since the "italian" part of that seems to mostly consist of peppers. Also, I find that the seasoning is light enough to compliment the dish. When you're done slicing the sausage, add it to the sauteing vegetables (they should be pretty tender by now).  Use your cooking spoon to move the ingredients around the pan occasionally as you saute to ensure even cooking and prevent scorching.

Just ignore the lack of onions/peppers
Add the 1/2 Tbsp cardamom, 1/2 Tbsp cinnamon, dash of coriander, and small dash of cloves. (And I do mean a small dash, unless you want your tongue to go numb).  You can also add a sprinkle of salt to taste if you'd like.  Stir in the spices until the meat and vegetables are fairly evenly coated.  Now add a small handful of brown sugar to the mixture.  In terms of my hands, this equals about 1/4 cup, maybe a little less. Mix this into the sausage and vegetables until they are evenly coated.  By now you should have a thick, slightly goopy (from the sugar) sauce in the pan. Once the sausage is cooked through, reduce heat to low.

Back, foul demon!
Don't forget to fend off any hungry gatos that might be stalking you during the cooking process.  The black ones are especially dangerous, due to their ninja-like camouflage.  I caught this one deviously eyeing my back as I sauteed the sausage, attracted by the scent of raw meat and licking his chops.  But I'm on to their wily ways. (It also helped that he was perched on a white washer and dryer, but still).

I've nothing funny to say about rice
Now, check your rice. Hopefully it's nice and dry and fluffy (see the pretty picture to the right).  If, however, it is not dry and fluffy and there is instead water in the pot still, then your rice is not done yet. The key is to cook the rice until the water has been completely absorbed by the grains.  If your rice does not seem to be doing this, try slightly increasing the heat (I said SLIGHTLY!).  Keep the rice covered as it cooks, and be careful to watch it closely, since you don't want to burn the rice in the bottom of the pot.

To serve, dish rice onto the center of a plate or into a bowl.  Top with the sausage, and nom.


Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Those Pesky Apprentices

Well, I've been somewhat lacking in inspiration from my latest reads, skipping around from book to book in an attempt to find something that appeals.  I've finally settled on my next book, but in the meantime I need to force myself to write a post. So, this week's book post will focus on the Ranger's Apprentice series by John Flanagan.  I read most of this series a few months ago, so instead of doing a separate book per post, I'm going to go for the whole enchilada (okay, I haven't gotten to the most recent two books, but 4/5 of an enchilada just doesn't sound as good).

The Basics
I'm going to eschew my usual MLA bibliography format this time around, since I don't actually have a particular copy of any of these books on hand.  Also, I'm writing about 8 books here.  In order the books are The Ruins of Gorlan, The Burning Bridge, The Icebound Land, The Battle for Skandia, The Sorcerer in the North, The Siege of Macindaw, Erak's Ransom, and The Kings of Clonmel.  The latest three books in the series are Halt's PerilThe Emperor of Nihon-Ja, and the most recent addition, The Lost Stories, but as I haven't read those yet, we'll be ignoring them in this post.

This young adult series is written by Australian author, John Flanagan, and features the story of Will, a boy who becomes an apprentice Ranger.  The books are set in a medieval-inspired world clearly modeled on the British Isles, Europe and Scandinavia. The Rangers are a peace-keeping force that protects the kingdom from both internal and external threats and are made up of small, quick fighters trained in marksmanship and being sneaky. (So, yeah, pretty fun).

The Books
One of my favorite aspects of these books is getting to see Will's journey as a character.  It fulfills part of that going-to-Hogwarts gap that now exists in my reading life (yes, I am aware of my sheer and utter nerdiness).  Over the course of the series, we get to watch Will become an apprentice Ranger; be trained in nifty things like archery, stealth, and marksmanship; become a full-fledged Ranger with a fief of his own to patrol; and, most lately, form part of a special-ops team within the Rangers.  Watching the training is both intriguing and exciting, and it fully submerges readers in Will's world, taking us through the training right along with Will and setting our imaginations to work.

Flanagan's characters are also particularly engaging.  Will is fun because readers get to learn right along with him, making him a very relatable character. He's far from perfect, which also adds to the believability; for example, sometimes his curiosity, typically a strength, leads him into trouble, or his friendship with Horace turns to a slight bit of jealousy tinged admiration. He lacks any smarmy traits or delusions of grandeur, seeking and receiving help from his cohorts on a regular basis, which adds a touch of realism to the story.  Each character has their own strengths that contribute to the successful solution of each book's particular dilemma, and Will is adept at utilizing those strengths and asking for help when he needs it.  My other favorite character is Will's mentor, Ranger Halt, who adds the spice of mystery to things.  Halt teaches by guiding Will to learn on his own rather than being told or lectured. Over the course of the books we slowly get to know Halt and learn more about his history, a process which suits his mysterious, taciturn and prickly nature.

Flanagan is also particularly skilled at drawing his readers into the action of the books by getting us invested in the plot line and engaged in the ongoing battles.  At times, every page I read only added to my suspense until I was galloping headlong to the conclusion of the book, reading as quickly as I could without missing anything.  The author is particularly good at battle scenes, writing with such vivid detail that you can fully picture and understand the battle.  I found this especially refreshing, since battle scenes often grow boring when extended; Flanagan's highly detailed descriptions avoid this pitfall by keeping the battles interesting.  It also helps that he doesn't often repeat actions in the battle scenes, which keeps things fresh and prevents readers from turning the page and thinking, "oh boy, another battle."

If you're going to dip into this series (which I highly recommend you do), start at the beginning.  Many of the books follow right off of events from the previous installment, so skipping around could easily leave you feeling lost (dazed and confused, even).  There is one exception to this, however.  I recommend reading the seventh book, Erak's Ransom, before moving on to the fifth book, The Sorcerer in the North. The fifth book follows a time skip, abruptly moving Will up from apprentice to full Ranger without detailing the intervening year or so. Flanagan later fills in this gap with the seventh book, Erak's Ransom, and, once I discovered this, I found it much more enjoyable to read the books in chronological order rather than bibliographic order.

Overall, these books are very enjoyable and engaging reads.  They prove yet again that not all books written for a young adult audience should be restricted to that age range.  Instead, this series can appeal to a much wider (and adult) audience.

  • I highly recommend the author's website for the series, which features a spiffy interactive map of Will's world on the home page.  Did I mention there were games?
  • Teachers!  There's a classroom guide featured on the website for using the books in the classroom.
  • And, don't forget to visit the Australian publisher's website for the books! This includes a link to Flanagan's upcoming series also set in Will's world.
  • Lastly, below are the covers for the most recent three books, not covered in this blog post.