Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Dinner Train: Anne of Green Gables

You are cordially invited to Anne Shirley's slate breaking, cordial drinking, tea sandwich, hair dying, croup curing, island hopping, Gilbert-hating, imaginary Canadian rager garden party!


And eventually, one brilliantly verbose review.  

Would Anne Shirley have it any other way?

If you forget your florals or your hat, we will break a slate over your head.
Thank you to Arianna, Sam, Aunt Brig, Camille, Bailey, and Christine for joining me this month (and for the pound cake, deviled eggs, flowers, cookies, and cleaning services rendered!)

Dinner Train: Anne of Green Gables - Rascherry Cordial

Frankly, I was doubtful about Anne of Green Gables.  I was convinced she was secretly a drunk, middle aged, slightly fanciful, tiny tiny woman in full dissociative break.  Kindreds?  Lake of the Shining Waters?  Eyes rolled so much they get stuck?  But then Anne won me over, decisively so.  How did she do it?  A, she admitted she loved tea parties.  B, she accidentally (on purpose, admit it) got Diana drunk (in order to get her in on the hallucinations imagination train action).  Ohhh, L.M. Montgomery.  You had me at cordial.  Thusly, I made my own cordial in honor of the moment I started liking Anne.

Except, because I'd had some wine before making this (would you have it any other way?), I seemed to think that the actual currant wine was made of cherries.  And that is how this came to be Rascherry Cordial, instead of boring old raspberry cordial.  This process made me realize something I'm okay with: I don't much like Meyers Lemons.  They're like part Balsam, part rosemary, part lemon...and not nearly as acidic as I want them to be, ever.  Disa to the pointing.  Probably, use real lemons.  OR don't, your choice.  Additionally, while flirting with the idea of spiking my cordial like an 80's high school dance punch bowl, I ultimately ruled against it.  You know, since Matthew or the French Canadian boy-helper wouldn't be around to take my unruly ladyguests home in his buggy.  But hey, it made enough to freeze two 16 oz. jars, so my friends, summer is just around the corner at Green Gables South!  

Rascherry Cordial
Anne of Green Gables Rascherry Cordial

Dinner Train: Anne of Green Gables - Upside Down Baked Apple Cake

Upside Down (but oh-so-right) Baked Apple Cake
Anne Shirley has a fondness for apples.  Anne Shirley likes to walk through orchards (and talk to apple trees).  Surely, I felt it was only appropriate to make something with apples.  Like Anne, I also like apples, but way less passionately.  But I like baked apple things best.  Additionally, this one time, Anne fell upside down off a roof that one time at schoolcamp (don't walk on the roof, duh).   Naturally, I felt it was only in good form to create a cake that incorporated the best of Anne and moi.  And also, I decided not to give my lactose intolerant guests reason to break a slate over my head on a mad dash to the bathroom...so I settled on tweaking Amy Traverso's Lowfat Gingerbread Applesauce Cake recipe from her cookbook, The Apple Lover's Cookbook.  The result was prettttty darn tasty.  And also 100% dairy free!  (Unless of course you choose to celebrate Anne's love of ice cream, like I did).

You too can dedicate your entire
kitchen countertop to the
creation of this cake.
A few things to note, however.  The first is that I think there is a typo in The Apple Lover's Cookbook recipe for the cake base here; it tells you to use the baking soda in both step 2 and 3, but only describes it in step 2; I erred on the side of descriptive chemical reaction and used it all there.  Maybe you're supposed to split it...maybe not?  Only Amy knows!  It seemed to turn out fine, so perhaps it is a moot point.  Second:  the cook time needed to be extended about 30 minutes when I added the baked apple component to this recipe.   Thirdly, I used blackstrap molasses instead of light or medium molasses, which makes the cake slightly less sweet, I think, which worked well because the added apples and sugar from the baked apple part are quite sugary.  Really, I just didn't want to get another jar of molasses when I already had some in the cabinet.  Fourthly, I forced myself to give most of the cake away to my guests; it is the kind of good that means I know I'd find myself standing in the refrigerator door intending to take out a piece, warm it up, and then eat it...only to have three pieces disappear before one makes it into the microwave.  That good.  Anne of Green Gables cake, unlike Count of Monte Cristo cake, is a dish best served warm.  Because bosoms (friends) are warm, you guys.

Upside Down Baked Apple Cake
based on Amy Traverso's Lowfat Gingerbread Applesauce Cake recipe in The Apple Lover's Cookbook
Upside Down (but oh-so-right) Baked Apple Cake

Dinner Train: Anne of Green Gables - Green Gobbles Salad

Anne of Green Gables Green Gobbles Salad
Maybe no salads appeared in this book.  But a salad did appear on my table, because when you're using "Green" as a guide to menu planning, you kind of have to.  Now, salad is...not hard to make.  There are, however, salads that are better than other salads.  Some people just know how to make a damn good salad.  One of these individuals is the Witt behind Sparkling Witt.  My salad guru swears by the following simple unbreakable requirements for salad:  color, crunch, and cheese. 
She writes:
Something colorful, something crunchy, and some cheese. Boom. 

I guess some other rules I have are: (1) if the salad is the whole meal, add some protein like hardboiled egg or chickpeas (2) ALWAYS TOAST YOUR NUTS (har) (3) Don't feel like you have to add tons of different ingredients -- keep it simple. and (4) Try to stick to a region of the world as a theme: so like Middle Eastern = tahini/lemon dressing with chickpeas & roasted squash; Mediterranean = olives, tomatoes, balsamic vinaigrette, etc.

I should write a book. Maybe just a pamphlet.
I want this pamphlet.  Or really, just one of her salads!

My salad included the following:

- Roasted Asparagus
- Grape Tomatoes
- Walnuts
- Avocado
- Cucumber 
- Baby Spinach
- Watercress
- Goat Cheese crumbles (DIY on the side)

I washed these things, roasted and cooled the appropriate ones, and put them in a bowl.  It was really hard.  I needed to sit down afterwards.  Sarcasm.  Seriously, salad is EASY. 

Dinner Train: Anne of Green Gables - Lake of the Shining Watercress Sandwiches

Anne of Green Gables Lake of the Shining Watercress Sandwich assembly line
Anne is onto something: tea IS great!  (More on that next month in (Middle)March).  One of the best parts? Miniature sandwiches!  Being a freaky and precocious kid, I was really into watercress as a kid.  Watercress and liverwurst.  I still, to this day, have no idea how my mother humored me while keeping a straight face that her 7 year-old daughter was in fact a fusty old British man.  Since I have since come to terms with the fact that liverwurst is the worst, and because I'm eating vegetarian this month, AND all my guests are vegetarians too, AND amongst us are some tricksy diary allergies, I felt a simple watercress and cucumber sandwich would suit everyone.  But there was one problem: I couldn't use butter.  Or cheese.  WHAT TO DO?  My friends, my new best friend is tofutti cream cheese.  I used the one with garlic and chives to add some additional flavor to the sammies.  I also left the crust on, because that's why Jay-zeus gave us teeth (also, I am lazy).  Sadly, I forgot to take a picture of just the mountain of sandwiches I created. This recipe is highly adaptable, and you can make as many or as little of these bad boys as you want.  I went until I ran out of fake cream cheese, about 7-8 sandwiches.   I found they stuck together best when I spread the fake cream cheese on both sides of bread like glue.  You can cut and serve them any which way you want; I chose to quarter them.  Enjoy them with tea, rascherry cordial, and bosom friends.  And obviously raised pinkies.

Lake of the Shining Watercress Sandwiches
Anne of Green Gables Lake of the Shining Watercress Sandwiches

Monday, February 13, 2012

El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency, by Ioan Grillo: Nonfiction? No mames, wey!

El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency by Ioan Grillo
Bloomsbury Press: New York, 2011.
ISBN: 968-1-60819211-3
Gringos, we’ve got a situation.  As in, our nearest neighbor that is not Canada is kind of in a big, big, world of mess right now.  And unfortunately, it’s partially our fault.  Mexico currently has an increasingly violent drug trafficking underground, which is frankly not getting any better.  I’ve never reviewed nonfiction before, but thought this would be an excellent foray into the field.  Why?  It’s timely, it’s more pressing than I think we Northerners realize (at least those of us further afield from the Mexican border), and I bought it because I work in a high school.  While I’d like to think my students are saintly, I went to high school too, and know that’s not the case, so I’d at least like to have something on the shelves to educate them about the bigger picture.  Ioan Grillo’s El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency is all of those things: timely, educational, thoughtful, and well crafted.  He covers the problem from all angles, looking at the history of the drug trade in Latin America, Mexican politics, the growth and evolution of regional trafficking gangs from small time farmer yahoo’s to big time militaristic and murderous operations, to potential solutions. 
El Narco isn’t just one gang; rather it’s a whole industry, and it has thrived and survived despite many efforts to the contrary.  I learned a lot in reading this book; for example, the USA won’t admit it, but SOMEONE was large scale supplying the US military with opiates to use a painkillers during World War 2, and that produced in Mexico and shipped north didn’t just disappear at the border… Nor was I aware that there is a whole film AND music industry pumping out Narco inspired songs and films.  While I knew about the increasing street violence, fear in the civilian population, and loss of faith by the Mexican people in their government’s ability to protect them, I was somehow less aware of the many rival factions and the scale at which they’ve become militarized. Frankly, it’s a little terrifying, especially when you factor in that these groups are now diversifying, expanding (Guatemala and Honduras are seeing an rise of the presence of these groups) and demanding tithes not just from small businesses, but  also from whole industries (oil, mining, etc.). 
Between the testimonies of former and current gang members, Mexican and United States officials, and civilians, this book presents a humanistic portrait of an often-barbaric industry.  It is compelling and frankly hard to put down (I don’t recommend reading it before bed…). I can’t stop thinking about it, and while I don’t think it will ever happen, I think Grillo makes a fairly compelling argument that legalizing the industry cuts their legs right out from under them and has been shown to eradicate violence.  Either way, it is a very thorough, readable, and thoughtfully informative look at a very timely issue.  This is a strong recommendation for all high school  and public libraries, and for older high school and adult readers. 
My one caveat?  There's no shame in admitting probably my favorite thing about nonfiction books are the illustration pages in the middle.  The pictures selected here are okay, but I couldn’t help but want to see pictures of some of the notorious drug lords, or the people that are interviewed, or...just a few more of everything!  Por ejemplo, I loved the images in a recent piece Damien Cave did for the New York Times about property in Mexico that belonged tobusted narcotraficantes, many of whom were mentioned in this book.  It’s truly haunting.  As is the second thing that comes up when you google el Narco; a blog in opposition to el Narco that tracks what's going on (you need to speak Spanish though, sorry).  In short, this is an issue that I now want to know more about.  Mission accomplished, Ioan Grillo!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas: A Dumas can Count, needs editor

The Count of Monte Cristo, 
by Alexandre Dumas
Nook Book copy, originally published 1845

 A few weeks late, but here it finally is: my epic rant (could be a lot worse) on the epic word count that is The Count of Monte Cristo:

Once upon a time, in ye olde Napoleonic France, there was a young sailor named Edmund Dantes.  Everything was turning up Edmund:  his hawt girlfriend Mercedes said she’d marry him with two days notice, he was earning enough to take cake of his pop, and he was up for a big promotion to be captain on his boat.  But poor, silly Captain Oblivious, with his one-track mind (did I mention Mercedes was hawt?) failed to see that he was making a lot of dudes jealous.  Dudes like Mercedes’ cousin Ferdinand, who creepily wants a piece, and Danglars (Danglers in my reading), who can’t stand that a teenage boy is more successful than him.   Conspiring with Edmunds drunk tailor neighbor Caderousse, Danglers proves how low he dangles when he more or less manipulates Ferdinand into mailing an anonymous letter stating that Edmund was making nice with Napoleon (currently locked away on an island – kind of a theme in this book/French history).  

Since the monarchists hate Napoleon and his crazy expansionist ideas, Edmund is arrested at his rehearsal dinner or something like it, and continues to have crappy luck:  his judge?  Villefort.  Like Danglers, his name kind of tells us that he’s vile.  Villefort is an unabashed social climber who has daddy issues and has taken another family name so as not to be associated with his Napoleon supporting daddy, Noirtier.  Which means when he reads the “evidence” against Edmund, he freaks the eff out because he’s afraid it’ll link him to his daddy.  So he a) tricks Edmund’s boss into creating false evidence that winds up being used to indict Edmund, and then b) he locks up Edmund in a crappy 18th century prison on an island in the harbor and throws away the key.  You know, as you do.  

        So now that we know the system is corrupt, Captain Obvious (Edmund) is locked away to rot in solitary for years and years and years.  Thus commences about 400 pages of quivering, gnashing of teeth, moaning, etc.  You know, being pissed you’re in prison.  He does the usual stuff, like try to kill himself, and then after like five or so years of this decides to plan his revenge.  About this time he realizes he can totally hear his wallmate up to something.  Turns out this something is building a series of secret tunnels.  You know, as you do in a prison escape plot.  Edmund and his new buddy, the Abbe, make friends; the Abbe teaches Edmund like six languages and explains to him what anyone else would have picked up on: Edmund got thrown under the bus.  Poor, silly Edmund.  Luckily, when he gets angry, he gets smart.  The Abbe is assumed to be crazy because he claims to have a billion and five dollars in like, Roman coins hidden somewhere.  Edmund, being Edmund, is the only one to believe him, but only after there are lots of long speeches about how they are now besties and like father and son, and oh, I will adopt you and make you my heir with my words.  So then the Abbe gets sick and dies.  Edmund finally shows a glimmer of individual intelligence and switches places with his body to escape.  

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Froi of the Exiles, by Melina Marchetta: Charyn't you glad it's got no froibles?

Froi of the Exiles, 
by Melina Marchetta
ARC from Candlewick, available 3/13/12

Three years have passed since Finnikin and Isaboe ended the Lumateran curse and exile and began rebuilding their country.  Now nearly 18, Froi has spent these years helping rebuild Lumatere and training with the Queen’s guard, both to mind his temper and to train to fulfill his promise to protect his queen.   Foreign relations are tense due to the long suspected role of Charyn in the Lumateran exile; to complicate matters, Charyn refugees are flooding the Lumateran valley on their border.  Fluent in Charnyite, Froi is given a secret mission infiltrate the desert country, impersonate a noble, and assassinate their king.  However, not even the trainings of the Guard could prepare him for what he discovers in the treacherous Charyn royal court.  Charyn has a curse of its own: no children have been born or even conceived in 18 years.  Charyn’s insane princess, Quintana, claims to be the only one to be able to break the curse.  However, Froi is strangely drawn to Quintana, who has become a victim of the curse, and to the Charnynite people, hesitating in his mission as his resolve to protect her and help Charyn find peace strengthens.  This wholly engrossing and beautifully constructed novel is filled with intrigue, dark humor, mystery, adventure, engaging new characters, and visits with old Lumateran friends.  More political thriller than pure fantasy, due to plot complexity and some sexual violence it is recommended to high school students and adults.   As a reader caveat, this novel ends on an excruciating cliffhanger! 

Hold your breath (or don’t is probably a wiser idea), because here comes a loooong review: 

Monday, February 6, 2012

Recipe 30: Greek Lemon, Chicken, and Orzo Soup (for the soul)

I'd like to preface this by saying, YES.  I KNOW.  I know I haven't done a book review in...oh...2012.  I've got four coming your way: Monte Cristo, Blood Red Road, and (SQUEE) Froi!  I'll get on that just as soon as I get over the heady rush of freedom being done with The Count of Monte Cristo has afforded me! As a quick reminder, February's Dinner Train book club book is Anne of Green Gables

This is all you need to
make this soup.
No joke.  Simple!
When I was in middle school, I really really really fell for the Chicken Soup for the Soul books.  You know, specifically the stories where pets/people/relationships die horrible, slow, tragic deaths.  I should be embarrassed, doubly so by the fact that I tended to dramatically and theatrically cry while reading them, but considering my bowl cut, braces, and giant red glasses, I've got larger middle school embarrassment traumas to fry.  But even now, fully aware of what a melodramatic nerd individual I was, I think we can all admit that everyone needs a dash of chicken soup every now and then.  Even you, vegetarians (I'm trying to do Veguary, but having a hard time - it's the SUPERBOWL for crying out loud!)  If you are feeling at all under the weather, eat. this. soup.  Seriously.  It's like all the vitamin C of sucking on a lemon, but way more enjoyable!  Plus, you get some chicken, some orzo, some espinaca, etc.  It's also sinfully easy to make, particularly if you have leftover chicken on hand.  It is so easy to make, I made it a few weeks ago when my throat decided to set itself, my eyeballs, and my sinuses on fire! 

You weren't seeing things.
I used the actual recipe requirements of orzo, but have made the same with egg noodles and other pastas, though the shorter the noodle the better.  The best part about this soup is that it makes a bunch.  I froze half, which means the next time I am sick I don't have to do anything besides defrost!  Bring it on, seasonal cold and flu!  This recipe comes from the New England Soup Factory.  I always add more spinach than necessary, because I love it.  Because I am in a life-long quest to become a loveable eccentric, I chose to use blue eggs.  YES.  BLUE.  You know you are excited by their existence too (they taste the same, but will excite you twice as much).  You can probably make it vegetarian by using vegetarian stock and tofu cubes.  I bet it would be tasty!  Because of the highly acidic brightness of this soup, I recommend serving with a nice whole grain bread to tone it down just a smidge.  

Yellow is my favorite color; this is my favorite chicken soup.
This bowl choice was totally premeditated.

Greek Lemon Chicken and Orzo Soup
via The New England Soup Factory Cookbook
Serves about 6-8
Blue is GLOWING from his healthy dose of Vitamin C,
courtesy of this Greek Lemon, Chicken, and Orzo Soup!


10 cups chicken stock (2.5 qts)
1 cup orzo
4 eggs lightly beaten with a fork
2 lemons worth zest
3 lemons worth juice
1 cup coarsely chopped cooked chicken (about a pound)
1 16 oz bag fresh spinach
salt and pepper to taste


1.  Bring your chicken stock to boil in your Le Creuset over high heat; you may cover slightly but leave the lid a bit open so it doesn't boil over.
2.  When the stock has reached a boil, add the orzo and cook it for approximately 5 minutes.
3.  Stirring constantly, drizzle in your beaten eggs and continue to stir the mix for at least thirty seconds after all eggs have been incorporated; the eggs will immediately cook into threads.
4.  Add lemon juice and zest, chicken, spinach, salt, and pepper.
5.  Once incorporated, remove from heat immediately and serve to your hungry and overtasked white blood cells.  Yummmmm.

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