Book #3 At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson

Because I’m trying to do this 50 books in a year thing, Jason and I are spending a lot of time reading these days. That usually works out perfectly, since reading is a rather solitary activity. But, in the case of Bill Bryson’s book “At Home: A Short History of Private Life,” I interrupted Jason every couple of pages to tell him something interesting I was reading. From why whales were almost entirely wiped off the planet for their blubber, to the origin of phrases like “above board” or “the head of the table.” Packed full of little tidbits of information, “At Home” is a charming reminder of the fact that our daily lives are really nothing more than a long string of coincidences.

The book is broken into chapters, one for each room in Bryson’s home, an old rectory in the English countryside. Built in the early 19th century, Bryson’s home is a testament to how quickly domestic life changed in the 1800s. From the drawing room to the butler’s pantry to the hallway and finally the nursery and the attic, the book follows Bryson’s curiosity from room to room. Every small story in the book comes together into a lovely read, although sometimes tenuously connected. I promise that you won’t be able to put this book down, and that it won’t be quite like anything else you’ve read. I should tell you that the “short” part of the subtitle might be a bit of an exaggeration at 534 pages. But, you’ll come away with TONS of trivia with which you can impress lots of people. Or maybe just bother them while they’re trying to read quietly.

Raspberry Peach Potstickers with a Balsamic Reduction

You know about potstickers with your Chinese takeout. Maybe they’re pork ones, or veggie ones. But have you ever had dessert potstickers? These peach raspberry potstickers might be the best thing I’ve ever thought of. Wonton wrappers belong in dessert. You might not know it right now, but it’s true.

You’ll need peaches and raspberries, obviously. I only used a half of a peach and a handful of raspberries. Each potsticker doesn’t require much filling. You’ll also need wonton wrappers, honey, lemon zest, sugar, and water.

Wonton wrappers are in a weird place in the grocery store… usually with the bagged lettuce. I think it’s because they have to be cold but not frozen and they aren’t dairy things. Anyway, be prepared to search. Just a heads up. Let’s talk folding technique.

There are a TON of ways to fold these things, so really, just do your thing. If you want to do it this way, you’ll want to put a blob in one corner, but not too close to the edges. Using a pastry brush, put some water on the edges of the half of the wonton wrapper with the filling, then fold it over. Last, bring up the two corners and stick them together with another drop of water.

See! They make the cutest little pockets.

Here’s the recipe:

half of a peach, peeled and diced

a handful of raspberries

1 T to 1/4 cup of sugar (depending on how sweet your fruit is)

1 T honey

zest of half a lemon

Put everything in a bowl and squish it. Really well. Then, put the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer. Try to squeeze out as much liquid as you can. Now that the mixture isn’t so wet, put in back in a bowl and start making your little pockets. When you’re done, heat 2 teaspoons of  coconut oil in a skillet until it’s shiny. Drop the potstickers in the oil and put a lid on them. Leave them alone for 4-5 minutes. Take them off the heat and use a spatula to scrape them off the bottom of the pan. If they stick, don’t worry–they’re potstickers! Just try to get them out in one piece.

For the balsamic reduction:

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

1 T honey

2 t sugar (or brown sugar)

In a small pot, bring the vinegar to a boil. Then, pour in the sugar and honey and let it simmer until about 3/4 of the liquid has evaporated. Take it off the heat and let it cool. When it’s done, it’ll be a little thinner than syrup.

Serve potstickers warm and drizzle the balsamic reduction over the top. If you don’t want to cook all the potstickers at once, they freeze really well. Just spread them out on a cookie sheet and put them in the freezer until they’re solid, then throw them in a bag. Just defrost them before you throw them in a pan. If you made your potstickers like mine, they look really neat in rows.

 

Pin-Spiration Sunday (week 5)

This past week, I’ve been dogsitting for a coworker who lives in the woods with no internet. Staying out there is sort of like vacation (except that I still have to work). But, I have to say, when I woke up this morning, I was so glad to be home. I snuggled under the covers, and I decided to check out some breakfast options on Pinterest. Although the things I found put my breakfast to shame, it’s so much less work to just look! Have you eaten yet? You should make sure you have some snacks before you go further. I’m serious. Go get some pretzels or something.

1. Almond & Yogurt Waffles with Orange Honey Syrup // Roost Blog. I might get to see this blogger speak and do things at a food blogging conference this winter. I just hope she brings waffles.

2. Caprese Eggs Benedict // The Curvy Carrot. I really do need to learn how to poach eggs.

3. Bacon and Corn Griddle Cakes // RecipeGirl. Savory and sweet? I think breakfast is made for this combination.

4. Lavender Hot Chocolate // a la mode. I’m not generally a fan of hot chocolate in the morning. Especially in July. But I think I could get behind some lavender hot chocolate.

5. Avocado and Poached Egg on Toast // Turntable Kitchen. This blog is super cool because they pair meals with music, and this one is silent–as breakfast should be.

6. Roasted Strawberry Brown Butter Pancakes // How Sweet It Is. That’s all you need to know about that.

7. Warm Pear Raspberry Bruschetta // shutterbean. I keep coming back to this recipe because it looks so, so wonderful. I don’t ever seem to have pears and raspberries at the same time, though. I’m going to work on that.

8. breakfast // always with butter. What a lovely little moment, don’t you think? I want to eat that breakfast. Especially because it comes in a tiny little lavender Le Creuset pot.

I hope you’re all having a breakfast that looks as good as these do, and I also hope you don’t have to do the dishes. Happy Sunday!

Pin-spiration Sunday (week 4)

When Jason wakes up in the morning, he’s ready to go. Although he’s usually slower to wake than I am, when he’s up, he’s UP. Also–he feels almost no need to eat anything. Most importantly, he acts like coffee is some sort of luxury. I, on the other hand, believe that coffee in the morning is my natural born RIGHT. Just try to get between me and the coffeepot first thing in the morning. Try it. And when we’re not at home, when I have to seek coffee farther afield than my own kitchen, you better believe I went to sleep thinking about it the night before. I was paying attention to the places around the hotel that looked dead last night. I’ll have a game plan.

Sometimes, Jason doesn’t understand how my singular focus can be coffee, at least until it’s in my hand. He wakes up saying, “Anna, we’re in Quebec, and all you want to do today is drink coffee?!” or “Let’s go to this museum and then from there we can walk to this other place, and then we can eat dinner somewhere around here,” only to realize that I’m not listening at all. If pressed, my mantra is “But first, Coffee.” Even though I drive him crazy with my incessant need for caffeine, he also doesn’t see the need to eat between 7AM and 9PM. How is that possible? Confession–sometimes, he stashes snacks because he knows that I’m going to become irrationally angry about being hungry. True story.

It looks like Jason’s going to have to find some snacks that he can get through airport security, because the Raleigh Airport has just started direct flights to San Francisco. So, this week, I bring you little pieces of San Francisco, compiled as I drink my coffee and begin to consider the day’s possibilities.

Maybe now you’re dreaming of hopping a plane to San Francisco? But first, coffee. By all means.

Spinach Walnut Pesto

Do you ever get tired of tomato sauce? I do. It’s so boring after a while; I mean there’s only so much you can do with it. I know, I know, there are people out there who are evangelical about their tomato sauce, but I’m just not one of them. I feel like pasta and tomato sauce should be a super easy dinner thing, and when I have to simmer it for hours, it’s not simple anymore. Even if I’m just reheating it and I simmered it for hours a long time ago. There are cream sauces, but they’re just too heavy, and I don’t understand vodka sauce… do you? It’s not my favorite. But pesto, I can get behind pesto! And, added bonus: it’s not just pasta sauce, it’s pizza sauce, toast spread, a sandwich condiment… the options are endless.

Here’s the really good news: pesto isn’t just for basil anymore. You need a green of some sort–herb or vegetable–and a nut or seed. Add olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and salt and pepper, and you’re done! It’s that easy. It could be basil+pine nuts (traditional), cilantro+pumpkin seeds, kale+pecans, or spinach+walnuts. Possibilities for days.

Let’s do this thing.

Ingredients: (recipe is adapted from shutterbean.com) Serves 2.

2 large handfulls of baby spinach

1 small handful of walnuts

juice of half a lemon

1 good-sized clove of garlic

olive oil

salt and pepper

First, you do need a food processor. Or an immersion blender. That’s the hardest thing about this recipe. Put the walnuts, garlic (roughly chopped), salt and pepper, and spinach into the food processor. Pulse the blade a few times, just to get things started. Then, pour in the lemon juice and some olive oil. (Don’t be weird about measuring, just wing it.) Turn the food processor on and let it go for a while. If it needs more liquid, put some more olive oil in. Process until it reaches the consistency you’re looking for. I feel like you know what you’re going for here.

Toss your pesto with pasta, sprinkle on some parmesan cheese, and that’s the easiest dinner you’ll have this week. There’s really no need to heat the pesto, as long as your pasta is hot. Remember, you’ll use less pesto than you would pasta sauce. It’s like pasta salad. But warmer.

Pesto will keep in a jar or tightly sealed tupperware container for up to a week and a half.

Book #2: Mathilda Savitch by Victor Lodato

Mathilda Savitch by Victor Lombardo is the charming tale of an adolescent girl faced with the aftermath of her older sister’s death. Pushed in front of a train by a man still on the loose, Helene was the apple of her parent’s eye, and they are left in a fog in the wake of her death. Mathilda, the younger sibling, is alone in her attempts to try to piece together some semblance of a life without her sister. As the one-year anniversary of Helene’s death approaches, Mathilda sets out to learn more about her sister’s life. In her quest to meet a mysterious “Louis,” recipient of her sister’s emails, Mathilda reveals her real immaturity. Unable to talk to her parents about her sister, Mathilda dons a dress of Helene’s, sending her mother into a tailspin. However, amid Mathilda’s moments of pure childishness, she is faced with situations in which she is expected to behave as an adult. In a voice that is in one moment hilarious, and heartbreaking the next, Mathilda rises to the occasion.

In his debut novel, poet and playwright Victor Lombardo brings us a less-jaded female Holden Caulfield. In her innocence, Mathilda’s voice is wry, yet painfully honest. Although she is determined to get her parent’s attention by being awful, her attempts at awful-ness are thwarted by her own longing for her sister. She says it best as she reads a story about a man facing death: “When I read the story, I felt like I’d written half of it myself, and the author guy was responsible for the other half. And when the two halves come together, it was like the end of amnesia and all the memories came flooding back. The best stories are like that. They’re like spaceships. They take you somewhere far away and you think, oh, what a weird place. But then you think, wait, maybe I’ve been here before. Maybe I was even born here.”

And that’s what it’s like to read Mathilda’s story, told her her distinctive voice. The truth is, we’ve all been there. At its heart, Mathilda Savitch is a quietly powerful American coming of age story. As she joins the ranks of Huck Finn, Scout Finch, and Holden Caulfield, I’ll be looking forward to Victor Lombardo’s second novel.

Book #1: In One Person by John Irving

Book #1: In One Person by John Irving

“A compelling novel of desire, secrecy, and sexual identity, In One Person is a story of unfulfilled love– tormented, funny, and affecting–an impassioned embrace of our sexual differences.” (Simon & Schuster book jacket)

I took this picture as I skipped out of McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village on my lunch break. I anticipated the release of this book the way that people anticipate the release of things like Twilight movies, or tickets to a U2 concert or something. Seriously, I don’t understand why people weren’t throwing those midnight release parties like they did for all the Harry Potter books. I would have gone dressed either as Jenny Fields (The World According to Garp) or Susie the Bear (The Hotel New Hampshire). Maybe that’s what I love so much about John Irving–I feel like he’s created a world in novels like Garp that are just as rich, albeit dark, as the fantastic worlds created by J.K. Rowling or Ursula Le Guin. Everything in the world according to John Irving happens for a reason, it’s justifiable, it’s symmetrical. It might be heartbreaking, but it somehow seems right. Cosmically fated. The only things that don’t fit that bill are, sadly, things that actually happened.

Although In One Person is a novel of “sexual suspects” like The World According to Garp, the sexual suspects of In One Person are never recognized and brought into mainstream acceptance on as large a scale as Jenny Fields (author of the non-fiction bestseller by the title A Sexual Suspect) or Roberta Muldoon (former tight-end for the Philadelphia Eagles). The sexual suspects of In One Person are bisexual men, transvestites; they’re suspect even to the world of homosexual men. The novel follows the life of one bisexual man, Billy Abbot, from childhood to old age. It becomes obvious early in the novel that Billy’s young life is on a crash course with the AIDS epidemic. When it arrives, the horrifying reality of AIDS decimates Billy’s contemporaries. He survives uninfected, but not unaffected. Billy Abbot finds a place for himself in a small town in Vermont, where he settles into old age as a sort of mentor for other young sexual suspects at a private boarding school. The novel is made up of misfits, people who don’t fit in, people who are tolerated until they step beyond the bounds that society has set for them. This fact is made painfully clear through the stories of two transvestites who arguably steal the show from the novel’s protagonist.

Coincidentally, In One Person was released on May 8th, the same day that North Carolina voted to uphold an amendment to our state constitution that would define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Although John Irving can certainly be considered a political author (The Cider House Rules, anyone?), I think this novel does a lot more than make a political statement. In an interview, Irving describes his ideas for novels “like trains in a station,” emphasizing the fact that he never knows which will come up next. It strikes me that the idea for In One Person came up when it did. I’d like to conclude that the idea of the “sexual suspect” has become less potent since the 1978 publication of The World According to Garp, but I’m afraid it’s still very much a part of my generation’s story.

This is number one of my fifty books, and I wouldn’t dream of choosing another one. (Also, yes, I did start this book in May, but I just now finished it. Have you ever loved a book so much that you avoided reading it too fast so that it wouldn’t be over too soon?) I would hand this novel to anyone with a smile and warmhearted praise for an author who has, once again, created characters that I will never forget, and a story that reminded me of my faith in the ability of art to change perceptions and require tolerance.

Squash Fritters

Are fritters a thing in the North? Or anywhere but the South? I really didn’t think there were that many things that we have in the South that other people aren’t familiar with, but I met some people from New Hampshire earlier this year, and they had no idea what a hush puppy was. So, naturally, I fed them hush puppies and sweet tea for lunch that day. Anyway, whether or not fritters are a thing, they should be. (Maybe you could call a latke a fritter? Sort of.) These fritters are made with pattypan squash and just enough garlic to make them a little spicy. I made a little goat cheese/greek yogurt/smoked paprika sauce for the tops, too.

You’ve seen these little pattypan squash, haven’t you? They’re super cute. They taste almost exactly like yellow crookneck squash, but they’re almost a little buttery. They’re great in anything you’d normally use yellow squash in. I got these at the farmer’s market, and I’m sure you could find them other places, but I’ve never really seen them in the grocery store. Grab some if you see them!

Ingredients:

2 large pattypan squash, shredded

1 large egg

2 cloves garlic, sliced paper thin

1 t salt

1 t pepper

3 T all-furpose flour

1/2 t baking powder

olive oil for frying

Sauce for serving:

1 T goat cheese

1 T plain greek yogurt

1/4 t smoked paprika

1 t lemon juice

salt and pepper to taste

First, you’ll need to decide how you’re going to shred the squash. I like the food processor, but the large holes on a box grater will work too, just watch you fingers! Then, when the squash is shredded, squeeze the water out of the shredded squash with cheesecloth or paper towels. Spend some time on it, it’s important that it gets dry.

Then, combine all the fritter ingredients in a mixing bowl. Stir to combine. Then, pour enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan generously. Turn the heat on to medium-high. When the oil is shiny and hot but not bubbling or smoking, spoon some fritter mixture into the pan and flatten it a little.

(Disclaimer: my cast iron pan was in the oven working on seasoning itself, otherwise I would have used it instead of this pan.)

When the edges of the fritter are brown, flip it! It should slide around super easily because of the baking powder. It’s like magic!

Make sure both sides are brown, then remove the fritter from the oil and place it on a folded paper towel to soak up the oil. When the fritters have cooled a little and crisped up, eat ’em while they’re still warm!

To make the sauce, just mix all the things together. Dollop on top. Enjoy!

 

Pin-spiration Sunday (week 3)

To get this started off right, I’ve started with one of my favorite photographs of all time. In honor of the Library Lust Edition of Pin-spiration Sunday, I give you John Irving and Kurt Vonnegut in one of the more charming photographs I think I’ve ever seen. Kurt Vonnegut taught John Irving at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and if I could be a fly on the wall in one room, it might be that one.

Anyway, today I bring you some nice-looking bookshelves, great books, and other book-related tidbits from the internet this week. Also, I’m announcing that I’m going to try to read 50 books this year. I know it’s not January or anything, but let’s just pretend. By this time next year, I’m going to try to read 50 books. Isn’t June 30th the end of the fiscal year or something? It is at Chatham Habitat, I guess. I only know this because people keep talking to me about “budgets and goals for the upcoming fiscal year,” but I’m usually not listening because I’m thinking about those donuts that are sitting on the conference table in front of me. Can you tell that I was a Literature/History major when I say that? Confession: I still have to remind myself that it’s “fiscal” rather than “physical” sometimes. Yikes. Well, my goal for this (possibly made-up) fiscal year is to read 50 books.

1. I love this little nook. It’s in a bookstore, I think, but I think it would make a nice spot in a house, too.

2. There’s something really cool about having books organized by color. However, this is not something that I could ever accomplish. I’d rather have books that are related to each other be close. Or similarly sized, that’s the most important, I think.

3. Books in the dining room?! That’s for real.

4. In One Person, John Irving’s newest novel. Book #1 in the 50 books in one year project.

5. Apartment Therapy is the coolest. I love these windows and books. Sigh.

6. This is the best propaganda poster I think I’ve ever seen. Ever. I think people should still support their local libraries. Go check out books! Try not to be blacklisted like I was at the New Hanover County Library as a twelve year old. Oops! That’s actually why I moved away from home to go to college.

Happy Sunday! I’m spending my morning in the air conditioning with book #2 in the 50 books in a year project, Mathida Savitch by Victor Lodato. It’s one that I picked up at work when we were selling books for 10 cents each. I won’t tell you how MANY I bought, but it’s safe to say that I won’t have to go to the library or the bookstore until at least halfway through this fiscal year.

How to Season a Cast Iron Skillet

Real talk: If you don’t own a cast iron skillet, I don’t know what you’re doing with your life. I guess there are lots of things to cook in, but I’ve never found anything quite like cast iron. They’re cheap, they last forever, and if treated properly, are less sticky than all the teflon in the world. However, it takes some time and energy to properly season a cast iron skillet. So, I’m here to help you out.

First, you need to know when a cast iron skillet needs to be seasoned. If food is sticking to the skillet, it’s time to re-season. If it’s new, it’s time. (Don’t believe this pre-seasoned business.)

First, you need to break a major cast iron rule. You’ll need to scrub your skillet with soap and hot water. A regular kitchen sponge should do the trick, but steel wool (used gently) is also an option. If your skillet is new, you can skip this step. After the skillet is clean, put it on the stove over low heat until it’s dry.

Next, you’ll need some Crisco (vegetable shortening). Over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons of Crisco in the skillet. Using a folded paper towel held with kitchen tongs, spread the melted Crisco over the bottom of the skillet and on the interior sides. It’s important to make sure there isn’t too much Crisco. It should coat every surface, but there shouldn’t be any extra hanging around. Make sense?

Set the oven to 350 degrees and place two racks in the center of the oven. On the top rack, put the skillet upside down. Below it, put a cookie sheet on the lower rack to catch drippings from the skillet. In an ideal world, it would be lined with tin foil, but not if you’re me and you’re out of tin foil.

Leave the skillet in the oven at 350 degrees for one hour. After the hour, turn the oven off and allow the skillet to come to room temperature in the oven.

Repeat this process (minus the scrubbing!) 3-4 more times for best results.

Once you have this well-seasoned cast iron skillet, there are a few rules you’ll need to follow in order to maintain the seasoning.

1. When cooking with a well-seasoned skillet, use the same sorts of oils that you normally would. You can probably use less, though. Butter, olive oil, canola oil, coconut oil, whatever. Do as you wish.

2. Cleaning a cast iron skillet is a whole different kind of dish-washing. Generally, just use a folded paper towel held with kitchen tongs and dipped in a little olive oil to wipe away any leftovers while the skillet is still hot. If that’s not enough, put some water in the pan and let it simmer, then gently scrape the food off the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. If the pan cools before you get a chance to clean it, you can use a completely soap-less sponge to work some of the food off the pan. Remember, the pan is always going to feel greasy, because it’s seasoned! Moral of the story–NO SOAP!

3. Make sure the skillet gets dry before you put it away. It doesn’t like to sit there being wet. So, when you’re done cleaning it, put it on the stove on low heat until the water has evaporated.

That’s it! You’re the new owner of a well-seasoned and well-maintained cast iron skillet. Congratulations! Prepare to loose every other skillet you own.