Sunday, February 26, 2012

There's No Better Title than Herbed Cheddar Biscuits

I mean, come on, they're just too tasty! As I sit here, noshing on my leftover Herbed Cheddar Biscuits while I write, I confess that I'm feeling rather pleased with myself. You know those delicious Cheddar Bay Biscuits Red Lobster serves up (the ones you stuff your face with until you can't eat your food when it comes)? Yeah, those. That's what I set out to make when I first started playing with this recipe, but along the way I realized how flexible this recipe could be in terms of flavor. And, I think now I prefer my version (which is probably dangerous).

What You'll Need
Large mixing bowl                                                       Cookie sheet
Mixing spoon                                                                Small mixing bowl
Dry and liquid measuring cups                                   Measuring spoons
Two tablespoons                                                          Spatula
2 cups Bisquick                                                            Cooking spray
1 1/2 cups (6 oz) shredded cheddar cheese                 3 Tbsp butter
1/4 cup buttermilk                                                       1/2 tsp garlic powder
3/4 cup milk                                                                 1 Tbsp herb of choice

Now Let's Make Herbed Cheddar Biscuits!
To begin, preheat your oven to 450F (That's about 230C, if anyone cares). Measure out 2 cups of Bisquick and add it to your large mixing bowl. Now add 1 1/2 cups of shredded cheddar cheese (I do this by weight, so that's exactly 6 oz). If you have it, measure out 1/4 cup buttermilk and pour it into the bowl (if not, do 1 cup milk instead of 3/4).  I had some on hand that needed to be used; it was exactly 1/4 cup, fancy that.  Then, add 3/4 cup of milk.  Mix everything together until you have a wet, gooey dough without any dry floury bits.

Spray your cookie sheet lightly with cooking spray. Using your two spoons, drop spoonfuls of dough onto the cookie sheet, evenly spaced about an inch apart.  Use one spoon to scoop the dough and the back of the other to scrape it off onto the pan. This recipe should make 12 biscuits, to give you a number to shoot for.  If you're overly conservative in your dropping and have dough left over, you can always add dough to each one.  That's why these are called drop biscuits: they're rustic (read, not so pretty), not prim little cut-out biscuits.  Set a timer for 7 minutes and bake at 450F until the timer goes off.

While the biscuits are baking, melt 3 Tbsp of butter in your small mixing bowl.  Try not to over melt it and let it start to evaporate.  Measure out 1/2 tsp garlic powder and mix it in with the butter.  I've also used garlic salt before, but I found that turned out a bit... salty. Just use garlic and salted butter and you'll be fine.  Now add 1 Tbsp of your herb of choice.  I used rosemary, so it had to be ground up a bit, as you see.  Other herbs that might be tasty: oregano (I'm pretty sure that's what Red Lobster uses), thyme, chives, etc.  Mix the herb into the garlic butter thoroughly.

Now, when the timer goes off, remove your biscuits from the oven.  Spoon the herbed butter over each biscuit evenly, until there is none left (click the picture to enlarge, cause it's awesome!).  This might be a little messy. Put the biscuits back in the oven and bake for another 3 minutes. When the biscuits are done, remove them from the cookie sheet to a bowl immediately to prevent bottoms from over-browning.

Cover the bowl and serve warm with dinner! Or, you know, by themselves.  They're delicious, either way.

Give me your biscuit, hooman, and I'll let you live...
this time.

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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and... Rue?

Okay, so the title of the book I'm reviewing is actually taken from Shakespeare's Winter's Tale; I just can't resist cheesy one-liners for title.  What can I say? (Nothing, I have nothing to say for myself). This is one of the authors I caught on to from reading the short story compilation, Home Improvement. And so, for this evening's book review, I turn to Seanan McGuire's Rosemary and Rue.

The Basics
McGuire, Seanan. Rosemary and Rue. New York: DAW Books, 2009. Print.

McGuire was born in California and is the author of the October Daye and the InCryptid fantasy series. She's also a singer-songwriter, and, according to her official bio, has what seems to be an unhealthy propensity for being bitten.  But she also has three cats, so she's super in my book.

Rosemary and Rue is the first novel in the October Daye series of urban fantasies and was McGuire's debut. It's heroine, October "Toby" Daye is a changeling recovering from 14 years spent as a carp and is strongly resisting being pulled back into the realm of Faerie.  After being cursed by an old "friend" into solving said friend's murder, Toby is forced to return to her PI roots to find the killer before the curse kills her. (Duh duhn dunnnn).

The Book
I loved this book.  From the very moment I started reading, I was hooked.  McGuire's prose pulls readers in and doesn't let them go until it's good and well ready to. Told in first person from the perspective of the heroine, McGuire spins a tale both gritty and witty. There's a realism infused in her writing style that is ideal for the genre of urban fantasy; it captivates readers by creating a sense that this could actually be happening out on the streets. (Maybe right now. Maybe... behind you!). If you can suspend your disbelief for just long enough, the story will draw you in and do the rest of the work (and really, what are you doing reading fantasy novels if you can't suspend your disbelief).

I also liked that this novel was firmly situated in the genre of urban fantasy: heavy on the paranormal, light on the romance.  If you pick this book up expecting paranormal romance, you're going to be sadly disappointed.  This is a noirish little mystery. And, while I'll totally be down for Toby to get a little romantic action in the future, I hope that the books stay largely true to this feel.  (Give me early Anita Blake, please, and take your erotica elsewhere). The book is chock full of the Faerie realm, pulling from so many Fae traditions that readers can't get bored; and it's all rooted in modern-day San Francisco.  All the tiny details, McGuire adds about the Fae and their lives, etc adds to the sense that there might be an entire world waiting for readers just around that corner.  Yep, it's awesome.

Toby is great fun as a heroine.  She's cheeky, but intelligently so. She mouths off frequently, but she tempers that with a sense of timing, controlling herself when it's wise to do so.  I really like that balance, since the witty, take-no-prisoners heroine is becoming a commonplace figure.  The balance McGuire strikes with Toby is different from other main characters who often mouth off without thought to the consequences. While this may make them look cool for all of two seconds, I almost always find myself displeased with how they get away with it, breaking my focus on the story.

Nor does Toby have or acquire all the answers easily.  Even if she's supposed to be good at finding answers, she's convincingly off kilter, having been out of the world of Faerie for the last 14 1/2 years. I think I had the mystery figured out slightly ahead of Toby, maybe 3/5 of the way through the book and I was sure, but I think part of that was that the truth was so unpalatable for her.  I'm really excited to pick up the next novel, and look forward to seeing Toby a little more on her game.

While I was researching this book, I noticed that a lot of readers had been disappointed by how much Toby gets tossed around in this book (but how well would you handle a thug shooting at you? Hmmmm.).  But, I liked that Toby isn't much of a fighter; she does what she has to to survive, but mostly relies on her ability to solve problems.  The urban fantasy genre is saturated with heroines that kick butt and take names; it's nice to have one around who relies firmly on her wits.

McGuire has carved out a refreshing little plot of land in the realm of urban fantasy for her series, and I can't wait to immerse myself in it further!

Toby? Are you down there?
  • Here's that official biography I mentioned over on Seanan McGuire's official website, which also features some online fiction she's written.
  • While you're there, check out the Toby Daye FAQ page, if nothing else.
  • In case you're unfamiliar with Golden Gate Park (The De Young Museum and Conservatory of Flowers are awesome, btw), here's a link to the Japanese Tea Gardens, featured so prominently in the book.

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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Eat Your Veggies!

Cause it's time for Rabbit Pizza! Okay, so it's not really made from rabbits (promise). These actually started life as veggie bars, but my family renamed them.  I picked up this recipe from my quasi-vegetarian best friend, Rachel (everyone say hi to Rachel and wave). You can top it with your choice of vegetables, so it's really flexible.  Tonight I've chosen broccoli and carrots.  It's also disgustingly easy to make, which is great since I just got off my weekend shift at work and am exhausted.

What You'll Need
Cookie sheet                                                                 Mixing spoon
Cutting Board                                                               Medium mixing bowl
Knife for chopping
2 packages of crescent roll dough                                8 oz cream cheese
Broccoli                                                                         1 package dry ranch dressing mix
Carrots                                                                          Mayonnaise

Now Let's Make Rabbit Pizza!
Start by preheating your oven to 375F.  Open your crescent roll dough and lay it flat over your cookie sheet.  The first package can pretty much be rolled out as is, but you'll have to break up the second one a bit. Press the dough together anywhere the edges meet, including the places where the dough would normally separate to make rolls. You may have about 2 crescent rolls worth of dough left over, depending on the size of your cookie sheet. Bake at 375F for 10 to 12 minutes, until the dough is golden brown. Set aside to cool.

So, don't eat this before an interview
While the dough is cooling, begin chopping up your vegetables.  Chop only the crowns of the broccoli into bite size pieces; discard stems.  I used pre-shredded carrots from the grocery.  There are tons of other vegetables that go really well with this (but I was too lazy to chop): bell peppers, cucumber, red onions, sugar snap peas, tomatoes, celery, etc.  Use whatever raw vegetable combination appeals most to you (and is tasty with ranch flavor.  Olives = blegh!).  Set all your chopped veggies aside.

Put 8 oz of cream cheese in your medium mixing bowl.  Soften in the microwave if necessary to make the cream cheese easily workable, but be very careful not to melt it!  Add half of the ranch dressing packet and mix thoroughly.  Taste.  If it's not ranchy enough for you add more of the ranch mix, but be careful; it's potent stuff. Once blended, mix in mayo 1 Tbsp at a time as needed to achieve a spreadable consistency.  I find that this varies; sometimes I need up to 3 Tbsp mayo and others I don't need any.

Spread the ranch flavored cream cheese over the top of the cooled crescent roll crust.  If the crust is not completely cool yet, wait!  If you top it while it's still too warm, the spread will become a runny sauce very quickly (and runny is just not a word you want associated with your cooking).  Spread the ranch cream cheese evenly so as to avoid any clumps.  Top this with an even coating of your vegetables. 

Cut the Rabbit Pizza into bars (aka squares), and serve.  This makes a really good appetizer or snack, and refrigerates well. Enjoy!

Next time, I'm adding red bell peppers and red onions. Nom!

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Classy Classics: Anne of Green Gables

In my rebound from The Hunger Games, I picked up L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables and its sequels.  Like many girls who pick up these books, I loved Anne from the moment I met her.  And I love her still more now.   These are great reads for young girls and adults alike, so let me show you why you should pick up this classic series if you haven't already. (Yes, I know I tend to migrate toward girly classics, but I assure you I've got tons more with wider appeal to pull from my bag of tricks).

The Basics
Lucy Maud Montgomery was born on Prince Edward Island in Canada in 1874.  She began publishing short stories in 1897.  She first published Anne of Green Gables in 1908, but didn't complete all installments in the series until 1839.

Like Montgomery, Anne grows up on Prince Edward Island.  The series opens with Anne Shirley's adoption by Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, an older brother and sister, who initially mean to take in a little boy to help with the farm work.  Anne quickly wins their hearts with her imagination and sweet nature.  The series follows Anne from the moment of her adoption into adulthood; along the way readers watch Anne grow into a young woman, get an education, find love, settle down, and become a mother. The books are, in order (though not order of publication), Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, Anne of Windy Poplars, Anne's House of Dreams, Anne of Ingleside, Rainbow Valley, Rilla of Ingleside.

Why You Should Read These Books
I guess I can hardly avoid starting off with our titular heroine Anne.  Anne is unlike any other character. She's full of life and so vividly drawn I feel as if she must have been real.  As a young girl, I identified very much with Anne and her vibrant imagination full of fairies and a love of nature.  It also helped that she had an enormous (and hilarious) capacity for getting herself into "scrapes." Whether she's dying her hair green, falling from rooftops, or extolling the loveliness of a tree in bloom, Anne can't fail to warm your heart. (Unless, of course, you don't have one.  You do have one, right?). One of the best parts about the series when you're reading it as a young girl is that you can almost grow up alongside Anne.  And, when you revisit the books at a later date a new stage in Anne's life will have opened up to your further understanding, meaning that whatever your age, you can identify with the heroine.

You really can't beat L.M. Montgomery on her prose.  Her style is warm and engaging, at times hilarious and at others tear jerking depending on what a scene calls for. There's a certain genuineness to Montgomery's writing that engages readers' emotions as well as their interest.  I also really appreciate her versatility in tone.  Much of each book is dedicated to simple, everyday Canadian life around the turn of the century, and Montgomery imbues these scenes with a level of realism that pulls me in so much that I feel I might look up at any moment and be surrounded by Avonlea.  At the same time, Montgomery is capable of some of the most florid flights of fantasy, experienced most often when Anne freely indulges her powerful imagination.  Believe me, you'll never get bored.

A unique aspect of the books that I enjoy is that the plot of each novel is wholly focused on Anne's life stages and her passage through them.  There are many little plot threads that run throughout each book, but there isn't really a dramatic overarching plot line like you see with most (if not all) series today.  The books are truly character driven rather than plot driven in a way that is rare today where readers demand a defined story to follow.  I like the meandering snapshots we get of Anne's life; it's nice to read something just a little bit different and less modern.  As a result, the Anne books make for quick, light hearted reads that will nevertheless leave a lasting impression.


L.M. Montgomery

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Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Crabby Valentine

Because what says love like Crab Cakes for Two, eh? And these are no ordinary crab cakes, they're deliciously savory, flavorful crab-cakey goodness. Oh, and they're heart shaped, so yeah....  I've had two cans of crab meat sitting in my cabinets for a while now, and I promised my boyfriend seafood for Valentine's day (we try to avoid the overcrowded, overpriced restaurant thing). So I grabbed a bowl and threw some ingredients together. Given how on the fly these were made, I was expecting crab cakes that were simply good.  Instead I got tasty, melt-in-your-mouth awesomeness.  Best of all, it was disgustingly easy, so I highly recommend that you join me in making these for your Valentine sweetie.

What You'll Need
Cutting board                                                                   Mixing bowl
Knife for chopping                                                           Mixing spoon
Sealable baggie                                                                Large cast iron skillet
2 6 oz cans white crab meat                                            Salt and pepper to taste
3 green onions                                                                  30 Ritz crackers
1/2 Tbsp parsley flakes                                                  3 Tbsp mayonnaise
3/4 tsp Old Bay Seasoning                                              1 cup olive oil

Now Let's Make Crab Cakes for Two!
Watch the fingers!
Begin by opening and draining off all the water on your canned crab meat.  Dump the crab meat into your large mixing bowl.  Next, chop your green onions.  The easiest way to do this is to line the onions up together and began chopping (it's really more of a half slicing, half chopping motion) at the green end until you get to the bottom of the onion that is all white.  Discard the white parts. Scrape the green onion into your large mixing bowl.

No need to be crabby.
Now, measure out 1/2 Tbsp parsley flakes and add them to the bowl. You can use a couple sprigs of chopped fresh parsley if you want; it's more colorful, but I didn't have any on hand. Measure out 3/4 tsp of Old Bay Seasoning and add it to the bowl.  It must be Old Bay; anything else is just... wrong. Next, add salt and pepper to taste; I used maybe 1/2 tsp salt and 1 tsp black pepper.  It definitely doesn't need more salt than that, but the pepper is pretty negotiable. Gently mix the ingredients together until you have a more uniform distribution.

Now take your sealable baggie, put in about 10 ritz crackers, and seal the bag, carefully pressing out any air.  Now smash (insert Hulk jokes into your cooking process now).  This is the easiest, cleanest way to generate cracker crumbs.  Using the baggie keeps crumbs from getting everywhere and prevents waste (/lecture). Add the crumbs to the bowl and repeat until all 30 crackers are crumbled.

I know I said no lumps...
Add 3 Tbsp of mayo and mix. You want a fairly even texture by the time your done mixing; no lumps, please.  Once blended, divide the crab mixture into four even parts in the bowl.  Refrigerate for about 5 minutes.  Chilling the mixture makes it a little less gooey and more workable for the next step. Take this time to prepare any other dishes you're serving or set up some candles. (Romance, people, romance!)

Remove the crab from the refrigerator. Take one of the four divided parts and roll it into a ball between your hands (clean hands, clean hands!).   Squish the ball between your hands to flatten it.  You want it fairly flat - about 3/4 of an inch thick.  Now cradle the flattened crab cake in your hands so that the flat surfaces face out and your hands are around the thinner edge. (Okay, see the 2nd picture if I'm being confusing). Curl your fingers down to form a heart with your hands (and, incidentally, the crab cake).  Flatten and repeat until you're satisfied with the shape of your heart shaped crab cake.  Set aside and repeat this process for the remaining three.

Ignore the irony.
Heat 1 cup of oil in your skillet over medium-high heat.  Do not put the crab cakes in until the oil is hot enough, or you'll be steeping your cake in oil. (Mumph). How do you tell if your oil is hot enough? Well, for starters, don't touch it (that's a no brainer, right? RIGHT?). Just barely wet your fingers and then flick a very small amount of water off of them into the oil (maybe stand back a little, just in case). If it sizzles and pops, your oil is ready.   Add all four crab cakes and cook on one side until it is dark brown. Flip and repeat.  Remove from oil.  Pat dry to remove excess oil if desired.

Who's an awesome girlfriend? This girl.
If you're not ready to serve your meal yet, the crab cakes respond well to being held warm in an oven.  Serve with your choice of delicious sides under candlelight (and yes, the lack of candlelit romance will totally affect the flavor).  The fettuccine tossed with the tiniest bit of alfredo seen here was particularly tasty paired with the crab cake.  Also, while this is the first Crab Cake I've ever had that didn't need Tabasco sauce, it still pairs nicely with it if you can't resist.

My chocolates now.
Happy Valentine's Day and stuff, hoomans.

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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Hungry for More

That's right, I gave in.  I finally read The Hunger Games. I've resisted the book for so long, but gradually my interest peaked until I could no longer ignore the book (this process of slow-moving obsession to near constant trailer watching delights my boyfriend to no end).  Why would I not want to read it? (I can practically feel the ravening hordes of fans circling). I think Margaret Atwood first ruined dystopias for me; they're not exactly happy-fun times.  And even though I loved The Hunger Games, reading it in less than 48 hours, I still think dystopias suck.  That's when I pinpointed my problem: dystopias seem too probable and that scares the hell out of me. But enough about my deep seated psychological issues and whining, let me tell you how absolutely awesome The Hunger Games really was.

The Basics
Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2009. Print.

Before she wrote epically awesome books, Collins wrote for children's television; she was partially responsible for Clarissa Explains It All for crying out loud! And before she moved on to Katniss, Collins authored the best-selling series The Underland Chronicles.

The Hunger Games takes place in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic North America, known as Panem.  Following a rebellion, the ruling body in the Capitol forces each of the twelve districts to participate in the titular Hunger Games.  Each district sends a male and female tribute between the ages of 12 and 18 to participate in a televised (and glamorized) fight to the death.  For the Capitol this is great entertainment, while for most of the districts it's a death sentence.  The story follows the heroine, Katniss, during her fight for survival in the Games.

The Book
So, I realize that for a lot of people, my review is about like saying that the Harry Potter books are pretty good, but I also think there are plenty of people out there who still need to pick up these books.  This review is for them (my own brother had never heard of the books!).

(Crud, now I have to put this book into words).  Okay.  I can do this.  The best part of the book was Katniss, which is a pretty good thing since the whole novel is from her point of view.  I like the strength of her character, from her intellect and creativity to her will to survive.  Even when she's irritatingly oblivious (poor Peeta), I still like her.  Even in her flaws, Katniss is very much a product of her world and the situations into which she's thrust.  Why would she think about such frivolities as love and pretty clothing when she has larger concerns such as starvation and seemingly imminent death to dwell on? It helps that she's highly sympathetic, which makes it easy for readers to identify with and root for her. Her excellent narration pulls readers into her story; I found myself raging against the injustice of the Capitol right along with her.  I was glad to see the strength, intelligence and over-all quality of her character, given how many young girls adore her (better than some other books I can name...).

As always for me in the fantasy genre, the world-building aspect of the book holds a lot of appeal.  Collins does an excellent job creating Panem.  The harshness of the world is emphasized by the manner in which readers experience it.  We are instantly immersed in the world since we see everything through Katniss, whose place in life is already pretty well established.  Readers learn about Panem as they follow Katniss either through observation and context clues or through Katniss's musings.  Despite the harsh dystopic condition of the country, I couldn't help but be fascinated with its traditions, politics, and just general goings-on.

And then we have the Games themselves, which I found as fascinating as they were horribly barbaric.  Being something of myth buff, I could see the connection to the Theseus myth Collins claims as inspiration, but her story is so much more than that (and, you know, lacking in minotaurs). The trappings that surround the games, making them into a form of entertainment to the people of the Capitol are intriguing (and, well, entertaining) but at the same time draw attention to the stark contrast between spectator and competitor.  Collins does a great job crafting memorable characters to surround Katniss during her time in the Games from her support team to her often nameless enemies (quite a feat to have memorable nameless characters).  Collins also creates a realistic and immersive vision of the survivalist Games.  She doesn't ignore Katniss and the other tribute's need to provide themselves with food and water and the physical effects of failing to do so in favor of describing the action and gore of the Games.  Nor does she simply represent a glamorized, stylized form of violence; her representation is realistically gritty (and occasionally pus-filled).

It's this skillfully crafted combination of imagination and realism that will keep readers turning pages.  And really, if you haven't read The Hunger Games yet (or, heaven forfend, not heard of it) go pick up this book now! (Go on, shoo). I absolutely loved the novel and can't wait to read more. That being said, I had originally planned to read through the whole trilogy before writing this blog post.  Instead, I'm taking a break; Katniss's world is just too intense.  I get downright surly as I empathize with her plight. So, I think I'll take a break and escape into an old, light-hearted favorite, Anne of Green Gables; that's about as opposite as it gets right?

  • As always, I must point you to the author's website, where you'll find additional info on the author and her other series.
  • Scholastic, the publisher, has a fairly nifty site for the series, including some entertaining little The Hunger Games inspired games to play.
  • And, unless you live under a rock, you might have heard that there's a movie, whose trailer can be found at the official website, starring the superb Jennifer Lawrence.

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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Currying Flavor

I swear I could eat Indian food every meal.  This particular curry began its life as a recipe for Chicken in Cashew Nut Sauce in Best Ever Indian Cookbook. Naturally, I'm unable to leave well-enough alone and tweaked (okay, okay substantially altered) the recipe until it became the curry that I wanted.  The result is a spicy, tomatoey chicken curry that pairs really well with homemade naan and mint chutney (someday I'll have a garden filled with herbs and mint leaves just so I can make this more). Unfortunately, because this is my own creation, the spices in the dish are added by a whole lot of instinct, but I'll do my best to condense them into tangible measurements. So, without further ado (well, maybe a little...), I give you my recipe for Curry Chicken with Almond Sauce.

What You'll Need
Measuring spoons                                                    Blender or Food Processor
Small bowl                                                               1 seriously large, deep skillet with lid
Cutting board                                                           Measuring cups
Knife for chopping
1 Tbsp cinnamon                                                     2 sweet yellow onions
2 tsp cardamom                                                       1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
1 tsp ground coriander                                             5 chicken breasts
1 tsp cumin                                                               3/4 cup slivered almonds
1 tsp salt                                                                   2 tsp minced garlic
1/2 tsp curry powder                                               1 Tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes                                         2 Tbsp fat-free plain yogurt
1/2 tsp turmeric                                                       1 6 oz can tomato paste
1/4 tsp chili powder                                                 1 15 oz can tomato sauce
Dash black pepper                                                   1 15 oz can diced tomatoes, drained
Dash cloves                                                              1 cup golden raisins, packed

Now Let's Make Curry Chicken with Almond Sauce!
Yes, I forgot to take a different pic.
Whew. Deep breath.  Soooo... I hope you have a well-stocked spice cabinet (heh heh). First things first, let's do a little prep work.  Aren't you excited? (No?) See all those spices listed above on the left. Yeah those; measure them out into your small bowl. Don't be too careful about it; this is more kitchen witchery than chemistry, and a heaping spoon every now and again never hurt anyone.  For the cloves, I do about two shakes through the perforated lid. You don't want too much; keep in mind that cloves are a natural numbing agent. Using a measuring spoon, mix all the spices together in the bowl, then set them aside.

Sniff, snivel, sniff
Using your cutting board and knife, peel and dice the yellow onions.  Go ahead and scrape them into your blender or food processor when you're done.  If you're working with a food processor (you lucky thing) you can simply quarter the onions before putting them in. However, since a blender is more of a pain in the rear, dice the onions finely (guess which one I get to work with *twitch, twitch*).  When you're done with the onions, begin chopping the cilantro leaves until you've got about 1/4 cup.  Avoid the stems as much as possible. It should go without saying, but wash the cilantro first (my latest grocery store bunch was filthy!). Set the cilantro aside, and begin trimming any fat off the 5 chicken breasts.  Cut the chicken into 1 inch pieces. Set aside.

Don't forget the lid!
Okay, so that was a whole lot of prep work.  Cover your blender and blend the onions until they are very small and there's a lot of juice. You don't want to liquify them, but you want them fairly mushy. Turn off the blender once your onions are done. Add your spice mix, 3/4 cup slivered almonds, 2 tsp minced garlic, 1 Tbsp lemon juice, 2 Tbsp fat-free yogurt, and 6 oz tomato paste to the blender.  Blend well until you have a very thick liquid/paste with few discernible parts.  Make especially sure that all the almonds are well blended; you don't want any chunks (nothing says tasty quite like chunks. Say it with me... chunks).

Mmmm... you saucy thing, you
Pour your spicy sauce into your large pan.  Saute over medium heat (just above your stove's middle setting) for about 2 minutes.  By cooking the spices before you add anything else, you better release their flavors.  You don't need to stir it constantly, but make sure to do so regularly or the sauce will scorch (and burnt is not a flavor we're going for).

After two minutes, add the chicken and cilantro and saute along with the spices until the chicken has cooked on the outside.  You'll know it's time to move on when all the chicken has turned white and no pink is showing on the outsides.  Now open the cans of tomato sauce and diced tomatoes.  Drain the diced tomatoes over the sink (don't drain the tomato sauce, as that is self-defeating).  Add both cans to the curry and mix everything together well. Saute for a little longer at medium heat until the chicken is cooked through.

Measure out 1 heaping cup of golden raisins, packing them into the measuring cup by squishing them into the cup before adding more. The original recipe only called for 1 Tbsp of raisins, but they really make the dish (and, I clearly like raisins). Make sure to use golden raisins or sultanas, because regular raisins just aren't the same. (Please note that raisins cause kidney failure in pets!) Mix the raisins in well.  Cover the curry and reduce heat to low.
How does one say Voila! in Hindi?

Allow the curry to simmer while you finish the rest of the meal. Serve with fresh made naan, rice, and your choice of sides. Pictured here, you see mint chutney, aloo with cauliflower and mushrooms, ad brown rice. Now, try not to stuff yourself to bursting (it's only a thin mint).

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Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Thorny Situtation

I picked up Mark Lawrence's Prince of Thorns on a whim.  It looked and sounded interesting (I mean, look at that cape),  but I was also a little afraid it could turn out to be really, really bad.  With a character as young as Jorg who is hell-bent on violent revenge, the plot could have come off as hackneyed and ridiculous (the lead character's snort-worthy name didn't help, either).  Fortunately, Lawrence is an exceptionally good writer, and he achieves an interesting combination of action and intellect that will keep readers turning pages.

The Basics
Lawrence, Mark. Prince of Thorns. New York: Ace Books, 2011. Print.

Mark Lawrence makes his authorial debut with the novel Prince of Thorns, and it's quite a hardcore start, I must say.  According to my in-depth research (also known as reading the back jacket), Lawrence is a research scientist in the field of artificial intelligence, is married, has four children, and resides in Bristol. Somewhere in amongst all that he found time to write the story of Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath, and let's be glad he did.

The first novel in a planned trilogy, Prince of Thorns features a spiffy jacket and an even spiffier plot line. Having watched his mother and brother be brutally murdered, young Jorg wants revenge and sets out to get it. He joins and eventually leads a band of bloodthirsty "brothers."  As the story opens he returns to his homeland and his father's court, where he finds more violence and treachery (cause there's no place like home).

The Book
I was initially put off by the first chapter or so of the book.  Lawrence goes for the gut (literally) with his opening, and I was worried that I'd find the book unreadable.  It opens with the razing of an entire village in a scene filled with violence and gore led by Jorg and his fellow thugs.  Jorg is not just an anti-hero, he's downright evil, and at first I found him completely unlikable.  But as you read, you soon realize that Jorg is a product of his world.  Violence is the norm in this war-torn world, as the nobles of each country and province wage war on each other for the right to rule as emperor.  Jorg is ultimately no worse than any of the other leaders in the world.  In fact, he's better because he's something of a military genius and he refuses to tolerate others leading him along for their purposes.  That's a whole lot more than can be said for any other leaders in the book.  It helps, also, that Lawrence is not overly graphic with the violence.  It's there, but he nicely balances what reader's witness with what they're simply informed of.

I also liked Lawrence's use of flashback throughout the novel.  Some might find it jarring, since the story frequently and quickly switches between the Jorg of the present and the 10 year old Jorg of 4 years earlier.  However, I like that it provides the present story line at almost the same time as is provides relevant back story.  The shift is always connected to the current development, and any remaining lack of flow in the narrative suits the jarring nature of the violence and depravity ongoing in the novel.

Another potential complaint might be the lack of character development.  Jorg is really the only character with any visible depth to him.  All the others are either shrouded in mystery for plot purposes, like the villainous sorcerers, or simply one-note characters, like Jorg's "Brothers."  This bugged me at first, but then I realized that it made sense. The story is told through Jorg's point of view, and he's practically a sociopath.  He cares very little for the inner workings of his cohorts, so it makes sense that we see them only through their actions and the parts they play in Jorg's battles.  We see the beginnings of development and deeper character in those people that Jorg takes further interest in (that he cares about, even as he tries to stamp it out), like the Nuban or Makin, in whom we find some actual personality traits and quirks.

I especially enjoyed the conclusion of this novel, since the last quarter started off with a twist that I didn't see coming.  I love it when books surprise me.  We also start to get a glimpse at some of the more subtle plot threads that work in the background and the manipulation of those eligible to hold the throne of the empire.  These promise a more complicated plot in the novels to come. Also, Jorg's discovery of these inner workings allows him to focus his violence and anger with greater purpose than he began the novel with.  I liked seeing Jorg's growth over the course of the novel and the promise of further growth to come. I'm sure he'll continue to be violent and kill without conscience, but I also think he'll have better developed reasons for his actions.

Lastly, I got a little thrill as I began to recognize the setting of the novel, which I won't ruin for you by being overly descriptive.  I started the novel with a sense of misgiving and a strong suspicion that I'd find it pointlessly violent and unenjoyable.  Instead, I got an unexpectedly excellent read in the form of dark coming of age story that left me eagerly anticipating the sequels.


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