Saturday, 30 June 2012

Weekend cooking: Roast chicken pie

Let me first explain the origin of this recipe: most times, I tend to pay the utmost attention to the quality of the food I eat and cook... Most times. There are times when I am just so famished/dead tired/with no time to waste/unwilling to cook that I ... hmm, will get the less than good quality, readily-available cooked meal in front me, just to satisfy my primal instinct of survival. That's how this recipe happened. I looked at the roasted chicken in front of me at the supermarket, bought it and went home. I had my portion which, of couse, I drowned in all sorts of condiments and I was satisfied. 

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The Classics Club: Lady Susan

(some spoilers included)

One of the earlier works by Jane Austen, Lady Susan is a novel that really changed my opinion of its author.  While I would regard Austen as a romantic writer in general (I am more into the misery of the Brontës' style of writing), I found Lady Susan really showcases Austen's sarcastic and sometimes mean description of the noble class. It is a treat for anyone enjoying the witty world of the "comme il faut" society and all the true work that goes on behind the scenes...

Monday, 25 June 2012

Mailbox Monday

Mailbox Monday is a weekly meme created by Marcia at Mailbox Monday and is being hosted all this month by Marie of Burton Book Review.

I'm participating in the Japanese Literature challenge 6, hosted by Dolce Bellezza - and I'm very excited for this nice pile of books (of course I will be reading in English, even though I would have preferred to read the original...):

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Weekend cooking: Baked fish sticks

Like many children, one of my favourite moments in my mother's kitchen when growing up were the (ready-purchased, frozen) fish sticks.  A novelty at the time, it entailed all things good and healthy and tasty in my mind. The fact that they were deep-fried only served as the added bonus for being a good child...

Fast forward to present day, when I realise that I haven't had fish sticks for some decades, because: a. I'm not thrilled by deep-frying anything, b.  when frozen meat/fish is already covered in "breadcrumbs", I cannot see what the original looks like, and I do want to see the quality... c.  the end result more often than not has deceived me in the taste department.

Enter my friend Jessi (check out her great blog!), who - being the investigative mind - has looked around and come up with a great recipe for home-made baked fish sticks.  What a great invention!  I copied her recipe, made some changes (of course...) and I am thrilled to say I am happy again, like a child, to taste the fish sticks from so long ago...

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Agatha Raisin and the Potted Gardener

(photo credit)
I was recently going through a phase where there was too much of everything... So, when Katrina reviewed an Agatha Raisin book by M.C. Beaton saying that it was "a good book for a bad day", I knew I wanted to try as well - I started with Agatha Raisin and the Potted Gardener (plus, it fits nicely in my Century collection...)

The first thing that came to my mind, of course, was the name of the heroine - Agatha.  I personally only know one other famous Agatha, Christie, and I was wondering how and if the two had any connection.  Well, in Beaton's biography, I read that she's considered the "new Queen" of crime (aha!) and, already in the first pages of the book, this is what I read when a new village neighbour greets Agatha:

Monday, 18 June 2012

The Classics Club: Bleak House

On the occasion of the bicentenary of Charles Dickens' birth, I read one of his epic novels, Bleak House.  In it, we follow Esther leaving her childhood home to go live with her guardian Mr. Jarndyce, as well as two other children, Richard and Ava, in Bleak House. Without further ado, we are introduced to the chaotic life of Mr. Jarndyce and of the infamous Jarndyce & Jarndyce court case, which has and is still destroying all the people in its proximity.

Bleak House starts in great writing style.  Dickens takes every pain to carefully describe the person, the case, the situation - even the helplessness surrounding the Jarndyce case... At times, he may give the impression of exaggerating, but I felt that all words had a distinct purpose.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Bloomsday - Dubliners by James Joyce

Today marks Bloomsday - a whole day devoted to celebrating James Joyce's life through his novel Ulysses (set on 16 June 1904).  It's called Bloomsday after Leopold Bloom, the main character in Ulysses.  This is also the day most purists actually read Ulysses... but not me.  I'm still in awe of this epic novel, and even though I would be able to recognise parts from Homer's Odyssey... I'll start my first celebration of Bloomsday by reading Joyce's Dubliners.

Dubliners is a collection of 15 short stories, which are meant to reflect the various types of Dubliners.  Most of the stories refer to adolescents and young adults, which - for me at least - also shows the contrast with the established, older generation and describes their desperate attempts at their future ...

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The Classics Club: The Hound of the Baskervilles

The Hound of the Baskervilles by A. Conan Doyle must be one of the few books that I read AFTER having watched various visual interpretations.  So the question for me was no longer whodunnit, but rather how, when and where, under what circumstances etc...

First of all, one either has to like this genre or not.  If you don't like it, it is indeed silly - to say the least.  And yet, much as I like mysteries, I also like the pen of Conan Doyle, because he writes in a style that provides much more depth onto the storyline but also, and more importantly, on the relationship between Holmes and Watson.

In this case, Dr. Mortirer seeks their help when he unveils an 18-century manuscript that details a "plague" cast upon the Baskervilles from a supernatural hound lurking in the moors - its most recent victim, Sir Charles Baskerville, has fuelled the fear in the area once more.  The next of kin, Sir Henry Baskerville, is in London en route to Baskerville Hall in Devonshire, only to be warned of his intention to stay there, as well as to have his shoes stolen.  Holmes and Watson agree to take the case, albeit in a somewhat peculiar manner:  It will be Watson taking the reins in this investigation, while Holmes stays back in London...

Again, I will make the distinction between films and the book.  While most films portray Watson as Holmes' ordinary sidekick, I never get that impression from the book.  Here the two are equal, and there are many instances where Holmes is not shy to point out Watson's strong points:  When he suggests Watson accompanies Sir Baskerville, he justifies it thus: 
"there is no man who is better worth having at your side when you are in a tight place.  No one can say so more confidently than I"
So, when even the great Holmes finds himself in a tight spot, who does he call? Indeed, Watson...  And again, when Watson complaints that Holmes did not tell him he was in Devonshire as well, Holmes replies: "My dear fellow, you have been invaluable to me in this as in many  other cases".  Just so that there are no misunderstandings, Holmes and Watson are a team!

The main theme in this novel is the supernatural:  the hound lurking around the moors is not a common little dog - no, it's a horrible, impressive hound, with fire coming out its eyes and mouth, it is the devil ... Something that common folk would immediately believe and I would think even Sir Henry and Dr. Mortirer would have trouble keeping out of their thoughts.  And yet, here is Holmes who also states his preference for this world: 
"In a modest way I have combated evil, but to take on the Father of Evil himself would, perhaps, be too ambitious a task"
Modesty or realisation that even his power has limitations?  In a reversal of roles, I found that it was the scientific mind of Watson that remained calm even in instances of distress and shed light into the story.

Another important theme are of course the moors, with their vastness and vagueness proving deadly for people and animals.  Everyone is afraid, does not dare to walk over in the dark - still, most of the important scenes in the story take place there.  I would even say that the moors get to have a personality, they are often described as "melancholy" and a place where 
"you never tire of the moor.  You cannot think the wonderful secrets which it contains.  It is so vast, and so barren, and so mysterious"
 But danger awaits around the corner:  "the longer one stays here the more does the spirit of the moor sink into one's soul, and also its grim charm".

The story in the Hound is past-paced, and I thoroughly welcomed the alteration between dialogue, narration, letters and diary entries.  This variety in text format provided for change in pace and prevented me from feeling  bored (not that I could ever feel bored in such a novel).  The end is fairly predictable, but still not without some effort - which is why I generally like Sherlock Holmes.  Everything is within the boundaries of the rational...

Two things that I found remarkable:  the convict, who from a dangerous criminal is now a guileless creature  sheltered by his sister, because "Evil indeed is the man who has not one woman to mourn him" (and here I thought Sherlock was a misogynist...) and a red herring that almost made me scream:  Dr Mortirer insists that he gives Watson a lift homeward "into his dog-cart".  This is of course a light horse-drawn cart, and not a dog-drawn cart carrying people (phew...)

I've watched three interpretations to date of the Hound:  the 1981 Russian version with Vasilij Livanov and Vitali Solomin, the 1988 British version with Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke and the 2012 British version with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.  Of the three, I really enjoyed the 1981 version, but I have to admit I now prefer the book version of the Hound...  

Also read for the Mystery & Suspense Reading Challenge

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Weekend cooking - chili dinner menu

My sincere apologies before I begin to all those who know and use the original recipe for chili con carne - I only knew it from restaurants up to now.  Once I decided to make a recipe for it, I researched plenty of variations, and settled for those ingredients that I liked (obviously).  This is my recipe for chili, and those who have tried it seem to like it (or are extremely polite?):

Chili con carne - my style

red hot chili con carne
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
1 rash of bacon (about 1/2cm thick), cut in fine strips

3 half peppers (green/yellow/red) cut in small pieces (or a total of 1 1/2 peppers of your choice)
2 sticks of celery, finely chopped

500gr beef mince
250gr red beans, soaked, boiled, left to cool

400g chopped tomatoes
100ml water
500gr sieved tomatoes (passata)
1tbsp smoked paprika
1 tsp chili flakes (or as hot as you like)
juice from half a lemon
1 tbsp oregano
salt/pepper to taste

(it can only get better from now on...)

How to start:  I personally prefer to fry the mince apart and leave it cool.  Otherwise, in medium heat, start with the first batch of ingredients, i.e. the onion with the bacon, the peppers and the celery.  Once the bacon is sufficiently fried, toss the mince and either fry or reheat.  Add the red beans, reheat as well.  Add the tomatoes and water.  I usually wait between the steps until the temperature of the pot is back at hot.  Pour the passata and add the rest of the ingredients.  Cook for about 20 minutes. (I know I should serve this with grated cheddar, but I could find none that day, so I used emmental - sorry!)

Corn muffins

pretty little corn muffins
Deborah from my book club gave me a corn muffin mix from the States, and I've been wanting to try it some time now.  She told me that she had also added a tin of cream corn to the mix, so I decided to do the same (well, almost):

1 240g pack of corn muffin mix
1 egg
80ml milk

a 230g jar of corn, boiled, mashed

The mix asked for 1 egg and 80ml of milk, so I mixed all these and added the mashed corn.  As the consistency was slightly watery for my taste, I also added 3 tbsp of polenta, but I suppose that depends on the mashed corn.  Pour in muffin tin (filling about 3/4 of the muffins) and bake at 170oC for about 20 minutes.  Leave to cool.

I served everything with nacho chips and I also made a crunchy green salad.

pomegranate ice-cream with cherries
For dessert, I made a simple - but oh so good! - pomegranate ice-cream, using Nigella Lawson's recipe: 

200ml pomegranate juice
juice from one lemon
150g icing sugar
500ml cream

Whisk everything to soft peaks, pour in container, freeze.  Pure delight...

This post is my entry into Weekend Cooking, a weekly event hosted by Beth Fish Reads.

Friday, 8 June 2012

The tiger's wife

We kick-off the new season in my bookclub with The Tiger's wife by T. Obreht, a book that has created quite a lot of buzz in the literary circles. Not only because it won the Orange Prize, but also because it chronicles the story of many people who find themselves in a new place, but still feel the connection with their past from a totally different area / country / continent. Obreht's roots are in former Yugoslavia, and going back to these roots and (re)discovering her family's history was probably the inspiration for this book.

We follow Natalia, a doctor and volunteer in an unnamed country (for reasons unknown), as she's heading to a village to help orphans. Her journey is disrupted when she's informed of her grandfather's death in Zdrevkov, the village where he grew up. The search for his belongings triggers a walk down memory lane, re-discovering her relationship with him through the stories he told her of the deathless man and of the Tiger's wife. These two fables together with Natalia's volunteer work intertwine in the book, and try to bridge the past with the present.

I found this novel easy to read but peculiar, as Obrecht first and foremost a master is at describing every tiny detail that take place in Natalia's life or the stories she's heard. Especially in the latter, I found it not always convincing that a person could recount in so much detail a story they've heard (but maybe it's only my memory that's deteriorating...). 

On the positive side, what I liked in this book is how Obreht manages to take the essence of each phase in life and show the influence it can have on the shape of a future point in time:  watching her doctor grandfather, Natalia becomes one herself, experiencing a bad incident with a tiger as a child, Natalia's grandfather maintains an affinity with tigers. Also very interesting is the closeness all of us feel to our roots: no matter how much we "advance" and "evolve", deep inside we seek the comfort of the known, the customary, that which has left a stamp on our person.

Although it is the title of the book, I have to admit that of the stories narrated in this book, I was not interested at all in that of the Tiger's wife. I found the story really dry, with no apparent impact on Natalia's grandfather. Obreht dedicates a large part of the book in the description of Luka, the Tiger's wife's human husband (...) and Dariša the Bear, a hunter set out to shoot the tiger. An extensive account of their childhood, their families and what makes them tick covers pages and pages - I just could not see how such detailed information related to the overall story... I would rather have had more depth in the grandfather's story, as he is the main character leaving a stamp on Natalia's life.

What surprised me, in addition, was the lack of great emotion: the book is supposed to take place in the war-torn Balkans, where emotions are usually very high on the agenda (personal experience, you see...). Yet, Natalia and her best friend Zora for example, friends from childhood, appear to talk to each other like colleagues and Natalia does not seem to want to confide the death of her grandfather in her... Natalia's character, in general, is not developed enough to have a voice of her own - I found her rather colourless throughout the book.

Moving on, I was rather intrigued and slightly melancholic with Natalia's relationship with her grandfather. I remember my own relationship with my grandparents, and how they have provided me with lessons in life, either as positive or negative role models. Here, of course, the focus is on the positive contribution the past generation has on our lives, and serves to remind us that there is still use for the white-haired generation ...

I found the Tiger's wife a very good first novel, that promises a great future for Obreht.  It did include little snapshots of the Balkan folklore and philosophy of life, that brought back memories for me, and even provided an interesting way to look at death (and life):

"When men die, they die in fear... but children die how they have been living - in hope..."

Monday, 4 June 2012

The Classics Club: Ethan Frome

If I wanted to be super-cynical, I could summarise reading Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton as follows:  Ethan is an unlucky man, misses out on his opportunity to fulfil his potential, marries out of obligation, meets Mattie and is infatuated with her, has deliberate accident, which leaves Mattie paralysed.  Poor Ethan now has to continue his miserable life looking out for both his sickly wife and for Mattie.

Of course there is more to the novel, but I found I could connect to none of the characters, and reading was just a nuisance.  Finishing was actually a relief but also a puzzle, as I had not understood what the point of the story was.

The story begins with a narrator who comes to Starkfield, wanting to find out about one of the local characters, Ethan Frome, who had a tragic accident about 20 years earlier.  From then on, the story goes back to that point in time, and narrates Ethan's life in a secluded, run-down farm.  It goes on to describe the triangle between Ethan and his wife Zeena on the one hand, a woman who tried to nurse Ethan's sickly mother, only to become one herself shortly afterwards.  She has been "oppressing" Ethan ever since their marriage, and while sickly, it's clear she dominates the household.

Things could start to look rosier when Zeena's cousin, Mattie, arrives to help with the household.  Ethan sees in her the spark of youth and unselfishness.  He falls helplessly in love with her, but he cannot escape being mastered by the social and moral constraints. On the one night they find themselves alone, they do... nothing! They cannot ever bring themselves to express their affection to one another, and on top of everything else, Zeena's favourite pickle dish is shattered to pieces...

When Zeena announces that she will replace Mattie with a more efficient girl, Ethan's world falls apart.  He considers eloping with Mattie but almost immediately realises there's no way society will let him escape his destiny... Ethan decides to bring Mattie himself to the train station - on the way there, they stop at the crest of the village in order to have a sledding adventure - Mattie sees no exit strategy in their situation but a deadly encounter with the elm tree at the end of the  hill.  The result is not what they wished for.  Fast forward twenty years to present day, and the narrator lodges with a Mrs. Hale, together with whom he mourns the state of "cursed" Ethan Frome, caring for these two women.

The story could provide so much material for ups and downs in the narration.  And yet, I could feel no tension while reading, as I would have expected given the miserable circumstances - in fact, I could see no action taking place at all!  It was this sense of "inactivity" that most probably unnerved me.  The characters of Zeena and Mattie are only partially developed, as Mattie is simply described through the eyes of Ethan and Zeena is just the unsympathetic copy of Ethan's mother.  Only Ethan is properly described in depth, and I could see his thoughts, his initial ambitions, the missed opportunities that could have led to a different outcome... 
The overall justification for his inactivity falls, apart from society's imposed moral conduct, also on the harsh weather conditions, and their effect on the human psyche (Ethan is described as having "been to Starkfield too many winters") - something I cannot agree with (plus, I doubt that Wharton had any experience on the subject and this actually shows in her story-telling).  I could see how a sensitive person like Ethan could be overwhelmed by the elements, but I had real difficulty explaining his whole life solely from this fact.  All in all, I felt it was not a well narrated story, it left nothing to yearn for and I'm afraid in a few months' time it will have been removed from my memory.

I had read a lot about Edith Wharton, and had long wanted to read her work.  I'm afraid though that reading Ethan Frome as a first novel may not have been the best choice.  It's not often that I feel so uneasy about a book  I've read and I hope it does not happen often...

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Weekend cooking - salmon and zucchini tart

I try to find inspiration for my cooking from all sorts of occasions:  a good meal at a restaurant, an open market with fresh produce, or, again, a tart from the famous Les Tartes de Françoise in Brussels, devoured at a friend's house.

The "innovative" aspect in this tart, was the combination of salmon and zucchini, which, together with the creamy egg mixture, rendered it mouthwatering, and - believe me - not heavy at all.  In addition, given that salmon not really "fishy" is, this tart can provide an excellent alternative to the meaty varieties.  New challenge ahead:  try to make it myself!  After a few tries (I mean, how difficult is it to mix salmon and zucchini), I had a new recipe under my belt!

Salmon and zucchini tart
Salmon and zucchini tart

1 pack (230g) puff pastry (I use all butter)
600g zucchini, grated 
1 small red onion, finely chopped
500g fresh salmon 
juice from half a lemon
50g cheddar cheese, grated
4 eggs, medium
250g single cream
1 tbsp corn flour
Dill, to serve

In medium-high heat, slightly fry zucchini and onion, until most of the water is evaporated.  Season and leave to cool.  Wash salmon, cut in smallish cubes, sprinkle with lemon juice.  Beat eggs with cream and cheese, season well. Lay pastry in a 26cm round pie form, sprinkle with corn flour, so the base doesn't get soggy.  Now, you can either lay zucchini and salmon first and pour the egg and cheese mixture on top, or, as I do, mix everything together and pour at once!!! (I never said I was conventional..).  Bake at 180ofor about 40 minutes. Sprinkle with dill and serve - enjoy!

This post is my entry into Weekend Cooking, a weekly event hosted by Beth Fish Reads.



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