Thursday, October 30, 2014

How Much I Don't Know: A Queer Romance Month Reader Wrap-Up

It's nearing the end of Queer Romance Month. I've been reading every single post since the beginning of the month (the ones on the site and a lot of the companion posts on other sites too). I've followed a ton of new people on Twitter and Goodreads, started reading some new blogs, read several books by new-to-me authors and put probably 50 more on my TBR list. I baked a cake, which was greeted crazy warmly and generously and made me feel all blushy. I feel like I've learned a lot.

But what I've mostly learned is just how utterly ignorant I really am. It was something of a shock actually. I consider myself a generally smart, engaged, empathic person. I grew up in a place where same-sex relationships were common and accepted even in my childhood in the 1980s. I've read a lot of fiction with LGBTQ characters, starting with Mercedes Lackey's Last Herald Mage trilogy in junior high and then Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City books in high school and just continuing from there. I'd never sought out queer romance though, mainly out of the mistaken impression that it wasn't "for" me, but also out of a resistance to how appropriating (new word--I could describe my objection, but didn't have the vocabulary) it seemed to me to have predominantly straight women writing m/m romance for other straight women. It didn't seem like something I should embrace when a lot of the reviews I'd read talked about how "wonderful" it was not to have romances that weren't all about sexism and power differentials, where a man could stand in for a heroine, thus eliminating a whole slough of problematic plot lines. It's still a concern, but it's not going to keep me from reading.

Y'all know I've now read and loved Glitterland (review here) and if you follow me on Twitter, you know I haven't shut up about Prosperity in a month. I also read Taking Fire, a lesbian romance by Radclyffe and a food-focused lesbian romance and erotica anthology edited by Andi Marquette and R.G. Emanuelle. I'll be doing a post about that anthology in the next week or so. I read Dear Mister President by Adam Fitzroy and even though that wasn't without its need for some suspension of disbelief, it was still a fulfilling love story between two older men set in the White House, which was oh so fun. I haven't finished all of All In a Day's Work, an m/m romance anthology, but I loved Amy Jo Cousins' historical drag dance hall story and Shae Connor's chef meets ice cream maker. And I reviewed Cousins' Five Dates last week, making what is probably my personal favorite Cooking Up Romance meal to date. And next week, Willaful, Ana Coqui and I are going to start KJ Charles' m/m romance Think of England. I'm very much looking forward to that.

But despite reading (I figure) almost 90 posts about LBGTQ romance and having countless thoughts about the implications of being a straight, white, privileged reader of anything, not just fictional representations of queerness, I'm not sure I've come to any robust conclusions except that love is in fact love. And romance is romance. It's been interesting to me to read these romances from the point of view of an outsider, having never had a romantic relationship with another woman or, um, been a man. Or genderqueer. Or asexual. The problem of how to acknowledge and celebrate diversity and yet still position diversity as normality (or non-othering) is especially perplexing to me. I need more help navigating that. Not only did it give me insight into how love is both the same and different for everyone, it gave me a different and better understanding of the romance genre.

Just by way of example, there was this post about paranormal romance by Ruth Sternglantz a few days ago that doesn't seem to have gotten a ton of attention. Or maybe everyone else was just nodding along in agreement, having been exposed to these ideas before. The point I took away from it is that paranormal romance is inherently Other. And it got me thinking about how vampires and werewolves have been portrayed in fiction for so long: powerful, unstoppable supernatural beings to be feared and slaughtered. There has been a trend away from that in fiction. But how many misguided people still view the Other that same way in life? A lot more than I would wish. I haven't read the series Sternglantz recommends, but Delilah Dawson did something similar by highlighting the oppression of vampires in her Blud series. They're even about civil rights. I thought it was a clever storytelling device, but now I wonder if it wasn't more than that. I'm embarrassed not to have made the connection before. And I loved the Radclyffe book I read earlier this month so it's a no-brainer to pick up these.

Thanks to this past month, I'm now sure it's not possible to be a serious scholar (ha!) of romance without reading queer romance in its many varieties, in every sub-genre, which I guess was the point. It worked. These posts and books and conversations have been a tremendous gift to my further understanding, even if the main lesson I learned is that there is so much I don't understand at all.

Finally, thanks to all the organizers and bloggers for Queer Romance Month. It must have been so much work to put it all together and I just wanted to say that I, for one, really appreciated it!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Summer Chaparral Carne Asada Tacos & Ranch Beans

Summer Chaparral by Genevieve Turner broke a long reading streak I had of historical romances that just weren't all I'd hoped for. Don't get me wrong: I love me some Regencies & Victorians. But they do seem to suck up a lot of the historical limelight. Sure, there are Westerns and Civil War romances and Medievals and such if you're willing to really look and read a lot of reviews, but the Ton ballrooms still seem to be the hottest thing on the historical romance menu. And I've never read anything like this Western Romeo & Juliet style family epic.

Set in California in the late 19th century, Summer Chaparral is the start of a new series about the Moreno family, an old Spanish family in the process of being displaced by and subsumed into the new American California. Catarina Moreno is the eldest of las Morenas, a dutiful daughter who is nevertheless chafing under her mother's household rule and her own lack of romantic prospects. She suspects she is being kept from marriage as a result of her parents' insistence that she marry within both her ethnicity and her social class, which leaves a dearth of prospects in their small California town. Beautiful, hard-working and intelligent, Catarina's enormous rebellions have included putting cilantro in the barbacoa and flirting with boys, even giving them the occasion kiss. All she wants is a husband and a home of her own, but despite all her family's wealth, it seems impossible.

When Jace Merrill comes on the scene, even a simple conversation with him gets Catarina into trouble with her meddling middle sister and both her parents, making her the object of weeks of town gossip. Jace has taken the much larger rebellious step of actually leaving his social climbing father's house and name behind 13 years prior because he'd prefer to be a rancher than a judge. By working for years at a large ranch in the Valley, he figures he has nearly enough saved for a ranch of his own. He just needs a bit more money put by, a bit of land, a couple hundred head of cattle and a grazing permit. What he finds is Catarina. Right from the start, Catarina and Jave are irresistible to each other. So it is not surprising when someone eventually catches them doing quite a bit more than stealing kisses under the rose arbor.

Forced by her family to marry, there is quite a bit of tension between Catarina and Jace. Family loyalty prevents both of them from expressing their truths to each other and both spend a significant portion of the novel trying to assess where the others' loyalties lie. But rather than relying upon misunderstandings and simple lack of communication, Turner ensures that the conflict between them is believable, reasonable and understandable. There is not only a clash of cultures and old family grudges at play here, but the tension between two newly-married people who haven't quite got each other figured out yet. Having run into this phenomenon early in my own marriage, I identified with their relationship growing pains in a rare and special way.

Summer Chaparral is the first in a series of three. The other two Moreno sisters, Isabel and Franny will get their own next year. I'm very eager for the next book, the hero of which I am assured is quite issue-laden (which, as you may know, is my favorite), and for the final book of the series, which features the independent youngest of the clan; the not at all tradition-bound Franny. This book was a fantastic introduction to the historic California setting and Moreno family, cloaked in a sexy romance full of tension and family drama. If you're ready to take a historical trip away from Regency England, Summer Chaparral would be a good place to start.

I'm from California. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and moved farther south when I was 12. This was a good experience for a future foodie. Not only is California incredibly racially and ethnically diverse with a corresponding diversity of culinary options, it has a huge array of fresh produce available year-round. In fact, when I moved to the East Coast for university, I was appalled by the state of winter grocery store produce. Pallid tomatoes, limp lettuce, bruised zucchini, flavorless strawberries. I started to pay a lot more attention to seasonality, locally grown fruits and vegetables (hello, ramps: someone write me a West Virginia romance please!) and farmer's markets.

Now from May through November I buy as much produce as I can from the farmer's market near our house and get a lot of our other groceries like milk, eggs and the occasional meat and poultry from a farmer who delivers it right to our door every week. We pay a little more for our food, but it feels more real to me that way: to be closer to the source of production and clearer on what exactly goes into my food. I'm not a huge evangelist for this way of eating or anything, but it did seem appropriate to share in connection with Summer Chaparral, which is so much about the basic necessities of both Catarina and Jace.

As for this recipe, it's definitely not traditional Mexican cuisine, but it's also not Tex Mex. You'll note a complete absence of cheese, rice, refried beans, hot sauce and other things that people tend to associate with "Mexican" food. These two dishes are a particular brand of rural, ranching, cowboy food that seems nearly exclusive to California's Central Valley: Fresno & Bakersfield, but also west to places like Santa Maria and south even to places like Brawley (which is where the friend who gave me this particular recipe years ago is from). Hence the orange juice, which is definitely a Southern California phenomenon. This is better on the grill, but if it's too cold where you are or you don't have one (like me), you can totally broil the flank steak.

The beans on the other hand are a total California grilling standby, usually plopped on a huge grate over an open wood fire. They get seriously burned on the bottom though unless you stir them constantly over a period of 6-8 hours so this crock pot version that I found does an excellent job of approximating the taste without needing constant attention or, uh, completely charring your pot. Not that I'd know anything about that. These aren't sweet Boston-style baked beans or gloopy refried beans. They're spicier, more savory and pair much better with the fresh simplicity of the tacos than anything else I've tried.

Plus, well, it tastes like home.

Carne Asada Tacos & Ranch Beans
Makes: 4 servings
Time: 24 hours, Hands on time: 30 minutes

Carne Asada Tacos
2 cups orange juice
1/2 tablespoon of lime juice
1/2 tablespoon ground cumin
1/2 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 tablespoon minced cilantro
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 1/2 pounds flank steak 
16 small (taco size) white corn tortillas
1/2 medium onion, chopped
2 tablespoons minced cilantro
1 lime, cut into wedges (optional)
fresh tomato salsa (optional)

1) Combine orange juice, lime juice, cumin, garlic, cilantro, salt & pepper in a freezer bag. Close and shake to combine. Add flank steak and squeeze out all the air. Refrigerate and allow to marinate for 12-24 hours.

2) Take the meat out of the refrigerator for 30 minutes prior to cooking. On the grill, cook the meat until a meat thermometer registers 140 degrees for medium (which I recommend or the meat will be tough), 160 for well-done (which I don't recommend because the meat toughens up), approximately 5 minutes on each side. If you opt for the broiler, first preheat the broiler. Then lightly oil an oven-proof skillet with vegetable oil and sear meat for 2-3 minutes each side. Then place the skillet under the broiler for 3-4 minutes each side until meat thermometer registers 140 degrees.

3) While the meat cooks, heat corn tortillas in the microwave between two sheets of damp paper towel until warm and pliable, about 40 seconds. Chop half an onion and mince the additional cilantro and mix to combine.

4) Remove the meat from the grill or skillet and allow to rest for 5 minutes. Then slice into 1/2 inch cubes, first going against the grain and then slicing with the grain.

5) Using two tortillas per taco for sturdiness, add meat, then top with onion and cilantro. They don't really need salsa, but you can add it if you like. I like a little squeeze of lime on mine, but that's quite a California thing and may not be to everyone's taste. Serve with Ranch Beans, recipe below.

Ranch Beans
adapted from

1/2 pound dried pinto beans
1 1/2 cups beef broth
1/2 medium white onion, diced
1/2 cup tomato sauce
1/2 jalapeño, stemmed, seeded and minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/2 tablespoon chipotle or ancho chile powder
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon packed brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 small ham hock (for non pork eaters & vegetarians, substitute 1 teaspoon smoked sea salt and 2 tablespoons olive oil)
1 teaspoon cider vinegar

1) Rinse and sort dried beans, making sure to remove any small stones you might find. Cover with at least three inches of water and allow to soak overnight.

2) In a crock pot, combine drained beans, beef broth, onion, tomato sauce, jalapeño, garlic, salt, chipotle chile powder, chili powder, cumin, brown sugar, paprika, black pepper & oregano. Stir until combined. Add the ham hock. Cook on high for 6 hours or on low for 8 hours.

3) At the end of cooking, remove ham hock and rest it is cool enough to remove the skin & bone. Chop up the remaining meat and return to the pot with the cider vinegar, stirring to combine.

Disclosure: I received Summer Chaparral from the publisher via NetGalley for review purposes and I am friendly with the author on Twitter.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Love is a Verb

Love in romance novels tends to be flashy. The memorable elements of a story are the ones where the hero fights off the bad guy and saves the heroine from the speeding train or when the heroine uses her family connections to keep the hero out of jail. There are murderous zombies and cyborgs to fend off; racist cow hands and vengeful gossips to elude. There's the dramatic, multi-orgasmic sex that occurs midway through the novel and the romantic wedding-baby-house epilogue: the trappings of falling in love.

And I love all those things. The bigger and flashier and plottier the romance the better as far as I'm concerned. But it's also fun and little bit subversive when those elements mask a simpler set of needs and desires. I'm reading a book right now, Genevieve Turner's Summer Chaparral (out today), that does this really well. The story revolves around a Romeo & Juliet style family conflict, an epic family story that results in a wedding midway through when the hero and heroine are unable to keep their paws off each other. That said, the deepest needs and desires of the couple are very simple. They're not looking for fame, power or riches. They want the security of a comfortable home and land of their own.

It's something those of us in the first world take for granted, I think. Especially those of us who have a roof over our heads and food on our tables, largely though minimal effort of our own. We go to school, we get jobs, we go grocery shopping each week and make meals or get take-out. So few of our daily tasks revolve around the sustaining of life, certainly not like it has been for most of human history. When the roof leaks, we call a handyman to fix it. We don't have to decide between canning vegetables for the winter or mending clothes. We go to Target.

I wonder to what degree our affluence (even those of us who live relatively modestly) affects us; how easy it is for us to merely survive interacts with how easy we expect life to be in other areas. After all, it isn't the bad guy or the beastie that brings together or separates most real couples or communities. It's how everyday actions are overlooked: preparing a meal, talking with a friend, having a cup of tea or taking a walk. The best moments in community are genuine inquiry with honest answers and jokes about glitter & squid. At the moment, I'm inclined to at least try to side-step anything else.

Alexis Hall's Prosperity comes out next week. I don't want to spoil the ending for those who intend to read it (and you should: intend to read it, that is). But there's a twist that romance readers might not see coming. I certainly didn't; though I was both frustrated and relieved that it ended the way it did, I didn't understand why until pretty recently. Now that I've had a few weeks to think about it, it's subversive in ways that hadn't even occurred to me when I first finished it. It got me thinking about the degree to which love is a choice, and not a choice we make once, but a choice we make every day. We choose whether to bring something up or let it go. We wade into a conflict or refrain. We make soup for dinner when we know the forecast is miserable at commute time. We read aloud to each other instead of watching TV. We walk the dog in the rain and wash dishes after a long day at work. We give the benefit of the doubt. We're oblivious or we're tuned in. We listen as well as we talk.

Making the right choice in a marriage or a romance or a community is rarely easy or obvious and love is a verb in addition to being a noun. It doesn't mean that any of these things can be undertaken without conflict. It does mean that we make choices about what we want to create. And every day, every action, every utterance contributes to that creation, whether we are intentional about it or not. Choosing to love is not an easy choice to make on a weekly, daily, hourly basis.

But making any other choice seems to lead to misery. So, in the end, what choice do we really have?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Five Dates Spanish Tapas

Five Dates by Amy Jo Cousins is a bright, optimistic romance, the sort of story it's unusual for me to fall head over heels in love with. I tend to like my romance served with a side of angst and wonkity darkness. But while older, out-of-dating-practice Devin and younger retail-job-loving Jay have some pain in their pasts, they're both definitely ready for a forever kind of love.

Devin has been helping his sister Lucy raise her kid since leaving their conservative parents behind after Lucy's pregnancy revelation and Devin's coming out. Devin's sense of responsibility for his younger sister has had him confining his dating life to mostly meaningless hook-ups. But when he loses a bet to her, his sister puts a personal ad online and starts accepting dates...all based on a thirteen-year-old picture of him. Their deal is that he has to go on five dates, all of which must end with a kiss or they don't count.

Jay, on the other hand, has always had a thing for older guys. The problem is that his job as a retail store sales associate, which he just loves, wasn't high-powered enough for his last older, sophisticated boyfriend. Still smarting from that guy's disapproval, Jay is not keen in getting involved with another older man any time soon. So when he meets Devin, he's disappointed and angry, but maybe still just a little bit interested. So when Devin begs for sartorial assistance for his next four dates, Jay is willing to help.

Five Dates is a short, quick, sweet read that nevertheless manages to imbue the story with both sexiness and tenderness as well as enough family and friend context to make it a bigger book than it seems. Devin's relationship with his sister and Jay's relationship with his pregnant coworker showcase each man at his best, even when they're not always displaying that to each other. It's impossible not to root for them the whole way through and rejoice when, three dating misadventures later, Jay and Devin do get their happy ending.

Best of all, Five Dates is still free on Amazon and many other ebook platforms. At a little under a hundred pages, it's well worth the time it takes to read and will whet your appetite for Cousins' future m/m romance releases, including Off Campus, a New Adult romance out this winter. I can't wait!

When Devin and Jay meet, Jay mostly sulks through an entire meal of Spanish tapas. But no one is going to sulk through this meal. This menu is "a production", as my mother would say. Unfortunately, unlike some things that take forever and deliver limited enjoyment, it's totally worth it.

The first problem you may have is sourcing ingredients. There are a few things on this list that you may need to visit an international grocery store for and some you may need to creatively substitute: piquillo peppers, serrano ham and pimenton paprika may not be readily available everywhere, though I managed to find most of what I needed at my regular grocery store. Plus, all told, it took me about two hours of pretty much all hands-on time to pull together these four dishes. I was taking photos, of course, but I'm also pretty efficient in the kitchen, so I think my time estimate is probably still accurate for the average home cook.

The reason I chose the recipes I did was that there are two cold dishes and two hot dishes, only one of which requires any effort: the patatas bravas. Since it's literally my favorite tapas dish from my favorite tapas restaurant here in DC though, a place called Jaleo, I decided it was worth it. The problem is that both the hot dishes need to be served piping hot and so timing is important if you're going to sit down and enjoy dinner with your guest.

As far as the preparation goes, I have separated each of the ingredient lists and preparation steps, but they're laid out in the the order I recommend preparing them. Prepare the stuffed piquillo peppers first. I actually let these sit in the fridge overnight and even though the Martha Stewart recipe says to chill for an hour, I'm confident that these can be made a day ahead without incident. They take about 30 minutes. Then prepare the aioli for the potatoes, which could also be done a day ahead and chilled. I also started heating the frying oil before making the bravas sauce. The bravas sauce goes next as it needs to cook for 20 minutes. Then I peeled and chopped the potatoes, adding them to the oil once it hit 250 degrees. Those cook for 10 minutes, which is the perfect amount of time to slice bread rounds and dress with the ham, cheese and fig spread. When the potatoes come out the first time and the oil is heating to 350 degrees, I seared the chorizo sausage. The potatoes need to fry for a second time, but that only takes about 5 minutes total so by the time the potatoes were done frying, the chorizo was seared. I had a second set of hands by then as my husband came home to set the table, pour drinks and start setting dishes on the table.

I've sized these recipes to feed two people generously. To feed four, you'll need to use the patatas bravas recipe as written, the piquillo pepper recipe as written and four chorizo sausages instead of two. You'll also need a half pound of Manchego, eight slices of serrano ham and 16 bread rounds.

Oh, and despite the fact that Jay and Devin eat tapas on their first date, don't try to do *this* for a first date unless you're a really confident cook. Save it for the three-month anniversary or something. It will be worth the wait, I swear.

Spanish Tapas Menu
Makes: 2 generous servings
Time: 2 hours

Goat Cheese Stuffed Piquillo Peppers
adapted from Martha Stewart Living

1/2 of 6-ounce jar piqullo peppers, drained with liquid reserved (approximately 8 peppers)
8 ounces goat cheese at room temperature
2 green onions, sliced
1/4 cup mint, roughly chopped
pinch red pepper flakes plus more for garnish
1 lemon, zested and juiced
1 green onion sliced lengthwise for garnish (optional)

1. Combine goat cheese, green onions, mint, lemon zest, lemon juice and red pepper flakes. Mix until well combined.

2. Using a small spoon or piping bag fitted with a large, round tip, fill each pepper with the goat cheese mixture. Place on a serving platter and serve immediately or cover and refrigerate up to 24 hours.

Patatas Bravas

adapted from Jose Andres via Olive Oil from Spain

1 egg
1 cup olive oil, divided
1 garlic clove
1 tablespoon Sherry vinegar
salt to taste

Brava Sauce
3 tomatoes, halved lengthwise and seeded
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon pimenton (Spanish sweet paprika)
small pinch cayenne pepper
1/2 tablespoon Sherry vinegar
salt to taste

4 cups olive oil
1 pound russet potatoes (approximately 2 medium potatoes)
salt to taste
bunch chives for garnish (optional)

1. Break the egg into a mixing bowl. Add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, the garlic clove and the vinegar.

2. Using an immersion blender or food processor, mix at high speed until garlic is pureed. Add olive oil in a slow, but steady drizzle while continuing to blend until you have a nice thick aioli. Salt to taste. If you experience problems with the aoli, visit the linked site. There are tips there for troubleshooting broken sauces. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

3. Cut each tomato in half lengthwise and remove seeds. Grate and then sieve tomatoes to produce 1 cup tomato puree or process halved and seeded tomatoes in a food processor.

4. Heat 1 1/2 tablespoon olive oil over low heat. Add the tomato puree, sugar, bay leaf, pimenton and cayenne. Allow to simmer for 20 minutes, or until mixture is reduced by 2/3rds, stirring occasionally.

5. Remove bay leaf, add vinegar and salt to taste. Set aside until ready to serve.

6. In a deep, heavy-bottomed pot, heat 4 cups olive oil to 250 degrees. Place the potatoes in the oil and poach them, frying slowly until soft, about 10 minutes. The potatoes will not changes color, but should yield easily when pierced with a toothpick. Remove to a paper towel covered plate with a slotted spoon.

7. Raise the temperature of the olive oil to 350 degrees. Return the potatoes to the pot, frying in batches until crispy and brown, about 2 minutes. Salt to taste. Repeat with remaining potatoes.

8. Spread brava sauce on a plate, top with potatoes, top potatoes with aioli and garnish with chopped chives.

Jamón y Queso
8 baguette slices (sliced diagonally)
4 super thin slices serrano ham
1/4 pound Manchego cheese, sliced into 8 pieces
4 teaspoons fig jam, divided
parsley for garnish (optional)

1. Layer half a slice of ham, a slice of cheese and a 1/2 teaspoon dollop of fig jam on each baguette slice.

2. Arrange in a circle on a platter, garnish with parsley.

Seared Chorizo
2 4-ounce chorizo sausages, sliced diagonally
2 tablespoons course brown mustard

1. Heat skillet over medium-high heat. Lay chorizo slices in a single layer and cook until seared on one side, about 3 minutes. Flip and repeat on other side.

2. Layer seared slices on a platter and serve with course brown mustard on the side.

Disclosure: Amy Jo Cousins and I are friendly on Twitter.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Composing Love Smoky Pork Bánh Mì Sandwiches

While Composing Love by Audra North might look like a conventional contemporary romance, in a lot of ways, it isn't. There's the primacy of work, even something as formal as what I might term "calling". The hero and heroine are both enmeshed in questions of identity and ability as they relate to the world and even view themselves. And it's an intercultural romance between white, rebellious, hipster guy Chris Reichert and half black, half Asian, staid, conservative classical musician Minh Jackson. And at every moment, on every level, these two throw sparks when they brush up against each other.

When we first meet Minh, she and her Greek friend Gali are decompressing at a club in San Francisco. Minh has recently been on a series of bad dates predicated on the assumption that she can use a check-list to identify a potential mate. The latest in this ill-conceived string is a guy who likes both black girls and Asian girls and refers to dating half black, half Vietnamese Minh as like getting two for the price of one. In her entirely justifiable irritation, she slams headlong into Chris, sending her drink flying and her desires skittering in his unlikely direction. And when he shows up at her apartment later with his sister, who is looking for a new place to live, it sets them on a path toward both personal and professional fulfillment.

Minh captured my quirky little reader's heart immediately. She's bright, talented, loyal, a little bit uptight and entirely unsure of herself and her place in it. She really wants to compose music for movies, but whenever she submits her portfolio, she's told that her work is technically excellent, but has no passion. This has left her feeling uncertain whether she is really capable of composing at that level and getting ready to settle for something she views as "less". Chris, on the other hand, is bright, talented and has passion, but he's unwilling to compromise his unconventional outlook in order to fit in and it's holding him back, even if it takes Minh's gentle prodding for him to realize it.

A good portion of Composing Love takes place with Minh and Chris at work or discussing work, which is a relief in a romance marketplace full of billionaires and people who in theory have professions, but only seem to actually work when it's convenient for the plot. So much of both Minh's and Chris's identity is tied up in their capabilities and notions of success. Minh in particular struggles because her family has always cautioned her against breaking out of the box in any way (including her music), keeping everything she wears and is and does within very conservative bounds so she might fit into a society that is always to some degree biased against her. Both this logic and prior negative experiences with taking chances are things she has to think about critically before she can embrace both Chris and her potential as a composer.

I really enjoyed Composing Love, zipping through it in the course of a morning. Thoroughly three-dimensional characters with friends, family, personal histories and definite aspirations shouldn't feel this revolutionary in contemporary romance, but it did.

I found this recipe on Pinterest about a year and a half ago and it has become a staple of my weekly menu plan ever since. The title is "Smoky Pork Meatball Sandwiches", which sounds super conventional and American--like it might be served on a hamburger bun and have coleslaw on top. But I remember thinking when I made my grocery list that week that the combination of quick pickled radishes, cilantro, jalapeño and mayonnaise sounded awfully strange. Culinarily speaking though, I'm pretty adventurous and I decided to take the recipe at face value, thinking that I would taste as I went and if something ended up being gross, I'd just nix it and drench the whole thing in BBQ sauce.

So I made the quick pickled radishes, sliced up a pepper, pulled off a couple handfuls of cilantro and dug the mayo out of the back of the refrigerator while my husband looked at me skeptically. I baked the meatballs, cut open the hoagie/sub rolls and threw together a quick salad.

When we sat down at the table, we assembled the sandwiches, layering mayo with big handfuls of cilantro and nestling the meatballs in with sliced radish and jalapeño. I looked and him and he looked at me and we bit into them clearly thinking, "Well, here goes nothing."

I have no idea what my face looked like that day, but I know what my husband's face looked like. His eyes got all big and the corners of his mouth quirked up. And when we both finished chewing and swallowing that first bite, we both said, "HOLY CRAP THAT'S THE BEST THING I'VE EVER EATEN."

And once I thought about it for half a second, I realized that I'd been a complete idiot because even though the title of the recipe sounded all safe and conventional, what I'd really concocted was a very simple Vietnamese Bánh Mì similar to one I'd once had in a little sandwich shop in Falls Church. But when you're ordering off a menu that's mostly in Vietnamese and imperfectly translated, you just kinda avoid the tripe, you know what I mean? Once I understood that this was actually what the recipe was aiming at though, it suddenly became normal, familiar and honestly, not strange at all.

Check out the recipe here at Every Day with Rachel Ray. It's perfect just as it is.

Edited to add (10/13/14): If there's a reason for avoiding pork in your household, I would be totally comfortable substituting ground chicken or ground turkey in this recipe. Or even your favorite vegetarian meat replacement. I haven't tried it, but there's no reason at all why it shouldn't be equally delicious.

Disclosure: Audra North and I are friendly on Twitter and she gave me Composing Love for review purposes.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Saturday Snack Time, October 11, 2014

It's been a while since I did a Saturday Snack Time post, but there have been sooo many good things that I stumbled upon this week. So today just called out for one. So here's a quick selection of links that that stood out, accompanied by Maple Bacon Doughnuts (recipe here) that I made for today's Washington Romance Writers luncheon.It was fab meeting all the writers and bloggers and readers today! If you're new to the blog, here's more about me and here are my review policies. So happy to have met everyone!

1 | Alexis Hall writes about love and intimacy as a goal in genre romance for Bookpushers.

2 | Grayson Perry on the Default Man in The New Statesman. Contains a call for a gay black James Bond, which seems perfectly rational to me.

3 | Banana chocolate hazelnut cake will be happening in my household right quick.

4 | Ana Canino-Fluit gives romance recommendations for books and tropes that appeal to her as a Latina reader.

5 | A Dungeons & Dragons gamemaster who plays with a group of porn stars (also: it isn't a gimmick and it's totally SFW).

6 | Older characters in romance? YES, PLEASE!

Have a lovely weekend, everyone!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Gossamer Wing Fruit-Bedecked Meringue

Steampunk romance is tricky. I generally want to like it more than I actually do. From a genre romance perspective, it seems like it would be a powerful combination to add a fantasy or science fiction element to alternative history: all the atmosphere of a historical with none of the rigidly defined social conventions or ultra-precise historical reckonings (in theory, though this book, Gossamer Wing by Delphine Dryden, adhered to some typically Victorian social conventions and it worked very well).

The problem seems to be that the loosey-goosey nature of the steampunk subgenre lends itself to a mix of science fiction and fantasy, blending pseudoscience with clearly fantastical elements resulting in murky world-building. The ones I have liked, this one by Dryden, and Prosperity by Alexis Hall (out later this month), seem to decide between a science-heavy worldview and a magic (or fantasy science) worldview. Dryden's offering is more science-based. Hall's is more mystical. Both work equally well.

Gossamer Wing is a humorous, fast-paced, sexy romance that flips the traditional adventurer-solider-spy/bluestocking pairing on its head. The action-packed adventure undertaken by Charlotte and Dexter is well-balanced with a marriage-of-convenience romance plot. Charlotte's spymaster father tries to distract her from the ongoing grief of her first husband's death at the hands of a French spy by interesting her in a mission in France.

Dexter is known as the legendary Makesmith Baron. Not only has he made much of the equipment Charlotte uses to fly her personal dirigible, the Gossamer Wing, he may be able to solve a problem with an underwater base the British and Americans hope to utilize in their ongoing cold war with the French. By enacting a temporary marriage, Charlotte's father hopes Dexter can keep Charlotte safe (though in reality Charlotte ends up keeping Dexter safe most of the time) and keep their cover intact as honeymooners vacationing in France.

Charlotte is delightfully independent and capable. She has education, training and wits. She reminds me a bit of Miss Fisher from Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries. She's not completely averse to violence, but she, like Dexter, mostly thinks her way out of tight spots. Speaking of Dexter, he is quintessentially tall, dark and handsome, but also a raging geek, in true Dryden fashion. He's also more emotionally intelligent and more sexually experienced than Charlotte and it's him driving their relationship to a large extent.

I adored both Charlotte and Dexter and will hope to catch glimpses of them in the rest of the series. If all the books in the Steam and Seduction series are as good as Gossamer Wing, I will be happy to say I've finally found a steampunk romance series worth reading.

I suspect that you will be quite skeptical when I tell you what's in this. See, it has some to my attention that an awful lot of my favorite people avoid both gluten and dairy. And when it comes to my desserts, well, they're pretty much full of both gluten and dairy. Think people are 70% water? Not me! I am 70% heavy cream. The rest is flour.

I'm pretty sure that's true. Yep.

So when the running joke endearments between the hero and heroine in Gossamer Wing took a turn for the food-related and the little gem "fruit be-decked meringue" popped up, well, I knew that was 1) perfect for the book and 2) something all my Twitter buddies can eat!

"But, Elisabeth," you're probably thinking. "What is all that fluffy white stuff pouring out of your meringue cups if not whipped cream?" That, my friend, is whipped coconut milk. It's refrigerated and whipped and whipped and whipped in the stand mixer until it is soft and fluffy like loose whipped cream. My understanding is that if you refrigerate it over night, flip it over and pour out the liquid from the bottom that you can get it much stiffer, but that was not my objective here. Soft and fluffy works great.

I actually made two versions of this dessert, the one pictured here which is tropical fruit, whipped coconut milk and meringue cups and a version of the British dessert Eton Mess, which is normally fruit, whipped cream and broken up meringue cookies. Either one works, but the cups photographed better so that's what you get here. Check out my Twitter feed for the Eton Mess version if you're curious. If you do want to try piping your own meringue cups, here's a little video I made showing how I went about doing that.

If you don't have three hours to spend waiting for meringues to dry out in the oven, you can make those ahead of time and keep them in the freezer. And meringue cups are available in some grocery stores. That takes this from an almost four hour project to a 10 minute one. Just cut up your fruit, whip your coconut milk and you're on your way. Oh, and resist the impulse to sub in whipping cream for the coconut milk. It's really quite, quite good for a simple little thing.

Fruit-Bedecked Meringue
Makes: 6 servings
Time: 4 1/2 hours (hands on time: approximately 15 minutes)
adapted from How Sweet It Is and Martha Stewart

3 egg whites, room temperature
1/2 cup superfine sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
1 can unsweetened full fat coconut milk, refrigerated overnight
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
8-12 ounces tropical fruit, chopped (I bought an 8 ounce pre-cut tub from Whole Foods and supplemented it with a kiwi that I cut up myself)

1. Preheat oven to 200 degrees. On a sheet of parchment paper on a cookie tray, draw 6 circles approximately 3" in diameter by tracing a biscuit cutter, drinking glass or other appropriately sized object with a pencil. Flip the parchment paper over so pencil doesn't get on your cookies.

2. Using hand mixer, whip egg whites on medium-low until frothy. Turn up mixer to medium and whip until soft peaks form. Add superfine sugar and vanilla. Whip on high until they form firm, glossy peaks.

3. In a piping bag fitted with a large star tip starting the center of one of the pre-traced circles on parchment, pipe first a circle, then a little wall to make a meringue cup. See the video above if these instructions aren't clear.

4. Bake for 1 hour at 200 degrees. Turn the oven down to 175 degrees and bake for an addition 3 to 4 hours or until meringues easily lift from the parchment paper without sticking.

5. Whip the coconut milk on high in a stand mixer for about 5 minutes or until fluffy while the meringues cool.

6. Layer fruit on top of meringue cups and whipped coconut milk on top of the fruit. Serve immediately.

Disclosure: Delphine Dryden and I are friendly on Twitter.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Queer Romance Month Rainbow Cake

Thanks to a new reader, I found out that October is Queer Romance Month. The kick-off was yesterday so you can go over to Joyfully Jay and read all about why queer romance is better than cats. Yes, those cats. The furry kind. It's very funny.

As a very new reader of queer romance myself, I don't have a ton of impressive insights and recommendations like the folks writing over at the Queer Romance Month blog do. But yesterday I saw KJ Charles post some chocolate chip cookies that spell out QRM on Twitter. So then I was like, oh we BAKE for QRM? Well, that I can do!

As it turns out, Queer Romance Month is a pretty good excuse for cake. It's a celebration of queer-identified authors and queer-writing and queer-supporting folks. Celebrations require cake. As Julia Child said, "A party without cake is really just a meeting." No one likes meetings, but everyone likes cake.

I'd been wanting to try making one of these rainbow cakes forever, but I'd never had an appropriate occasion. It's actually pretty easy. I started with this white cake recipe from Smitten Kitchen (remember the rule folks: if you're going to screw around with a recipe, make sure you start with a good one). The reason was that it makes exactly 9 cups of batter so I was able to make 6 equal layers using 1 1/2 cups of batter for each cake pan.

Then I added food coloring to each portion of batter to turn them all the colors of the rainbow. I felt like a mad scientist (complete with Coke bottle glasses and lab coat--okay, not really) as I mixed colors to get just the right shades. For the record, I use Americolor gel paste food coloring from the baking supply store (or online). They have dozens of colors and they're more concentrated than the ones you buy in the grocery store. I was just too lazy to drive all the way to the baking store to buy orange and purple.

The layers only take about 15 minutes to bake since they're so thin, but I did have to bake them in two batches because I only have 3 cake pans. Then I made a metric ton of Swiss Meringue Buttercream and frosted it all up. Voila! Queer Romance Month Rainbow Cake!

Now for the really important stuff. The first few posts up on the QRM site are excellent: intelligent, informative, entertaining. I'm sure the rest of the month will follow suit since the line-up looks stellar. I'd highly recommend subscribing, even if you think you might not have any interest in queer romance. If you'd asked me before a few weeks ago, I wouldn't have been quite so excited about this. I didn't know any better. I thought heterosexual romance was for heterosexual people and queer romance was for queer people. But I feel pretty stupid about that now. Since I read Glitterland (my review is here), I've read a steampunk and an historical short story and they've all been terrific reads. So don't be like me. Don't wait until someone literally puts a book in your hands to try out some of these great recommendations. Really, if you're not reading queer romance in whatever subgenre you like best, you're missing out on a lot of wonderful love stories.

Plus, we have cake.
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