Saturday, January 31, 2015

Meal Planning for More Romance

Let's talk about meal planning. Wait, what? How does that have anything to do with romance? Well, it doesn't. Except that instead of stopping at the grocery store every night on your way home from work, perusing the aisles for dinner ideas, you could be home reading. Or writing. Or whatever you do. Mainly I just wanted to write about something else for a change and it occurred to me (after watching out my kitchen window while our neighbors get delivery every night or bring home take-out while I cook) that very few people actually cook every night. Or even most nights. Or even at all. Which is fine, but if you're here visiting my blog, I have to assume interest in cooking with at least some regularity?

So I thought I'd just explain how I do it. This all started when I was working full-time, but the same principles apply now that I have more time and can make more complicated weeknight meals. So if you're interested, cool. Read on. If not, this is an obnoxious Saturday morning life planning post and you can just skip it. Good? Good. Let's go.

1. Check the calendar.

We have evening activities, dinner parties, deadline days and other stuff that impacts what I might feel like or have time for cooking on any given day. For example, this week we have a 9 pm show to attend tonight, dinner reservations tomorrow, dance class on Wednesday night and friends coming to dinner on Friday. I don't want to plan a meal for every night because that wouldn't make sense. Incidentally, this is why I don't love those pre-planned meal packages/printables. Not enough flexibility.

2. Check the weather/sales flyers.

Believe it or not, I actually do this. Not so much for our own meals (which explains why I had salads on the menu for last night when it was 16 degrees out), but mainly for company. I don't want to heat up the house in the summer or serve hearty stew on a rare 60 degree day in January. Also, my grocery store doesn't have weekly sales (they have quarterly specials), but if yours does and budget is a factor, it can save a lot of money to plan around what's on special. For example, I stock up on baking supplies in winter and frozen whole chickens in summer.

3. Have a few weekly meal staples.

We like homemade pizza. And I have a pizza dough recipe that lets me make 6 or 7 freezable crusts. So on Wednesdays when we have dance class, it's an obvious choice. I just take the pizza dough out of the freezer before we leave and when we come back, it's ready to throw in the oven for a quick meal after our 6 pm class. If you're super busy, you might want to have more than one of these built-in meals. Say, tacos on Tuesday or soup and sandwiches on Thursday. Just something you don't have to think about or that takes too much effort.

4. Don't try too many new recipes in one week.

I'm a very experienced cook and I'm pretty good at looking at recipes to see how long they will take (hint: the timing isn't always accurate--many sites underestimate and cookbooks don't always include prep time). But even I have the occasional disaster or super late meal. I try to minimize the impact by choosing only one or two new recipes to try a week in case something doesn't turn out as expected or I end up saving the "30 minute" but really 2 hour meal for the next night. The rest are all recipes I've tried before or simple meals I've made a thousand times like beef stew, lasagna, chili or baked chicken.

5. Plan for leftovers.

Most of the time, my husband takes leftovers to work for lunch. But if he has a conference or I've made several robust meals in a week, we'll have a leftover night. It's a good way to use up the last little bits before bringing new food into the house. I go grocery shopping on Fridays so doing that on Thursdays is handy for clearing out the fridge.

6. Make a menu.

Mine is super simple (that's it above) and I assign a meal to each day or write in plans that would require us to eat out or get take-out. Usually I just plan the main dish and rely on either farmer's markets veggies in the summer or frozen veggies in the winter to round out a meal. I always have rice, potatoes and couscous on hand for starches if the meal seems like it needs one. I stick it to the fridge with magnets so husband knows what we're having too.

6. Shop once a week (or sometimes every two weeks).

I have my husband trained to write stuff we run out of on a magnetic notepad on the fridge, especially things we don't use all the time or stuff he eats and I don't (like peanut butter). And I add things like spices and sauces that I use while cooking. That keeps the pantry pretty well stocked. When it comes time to make a list, I made a template on my grocery store's app that I copy every week, checking stuff like TP, kleenex, dishwashing liquid and such. Then I add any special ingredients I need from my menu, the stuff from the refrigerator list (which is often already on the template anyway) and head for the store. Oh, and a note on the grocery store app: it's a huge time saver because it organizes my list by aisle. I've cut my shopping time literally in half.

7. Cook.

Every morning, I check my menu on the fridge and pull out any frozen meat or do any long-ish prep work (like if I need to put something in the crockpot). Then when my husband gets home from work, I'm ready to cook.

This might seem like a lot of work, but it's really quite second-nature now. And it definitely beats the days of stopping for groceries, take-out or ordering delivery every night. Instead, I can save our money for stuff like the occasional nice meal out (something we actually care about, as opposed to delivery pizza or sub-par Chinese). My family grew up cooking every night and eating together so a lot of this is second-nature to me, but I know that's not the case for everybody. So I hope that helps someone. And then we can all get back to our romance.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Romance Social Gathering in Washington, DC on February 11th 5:30 to 7:30

Wow! Romancelandia is coming to my home town! I couldn't just let this pass unnoticed, especially not when so many writers and reviewers and romance-focused academics are coming here to  Washington, DC for a visit. The occasion is the What Is Love? Romance Fiction in the Digital Age conference at the Library of Congress on February 11th. The night before there is also a sneak preview screening of Love Between the Covers, a new feature-length documentary film about romance.

However, I did notice a key feature missing from the conference program, one that seems non-negotiable whenever romance fans get together: a chance to linger over beer & wine and chat about our favorite authors, books and everything we learned that day at the conference. Or if you're local and can't make the conference because of work and other commitments, we'd still love to have you join us.

So after the What is Love? conference on Wednesday, February 11th, join romance readers and writers (specifically me and writer Megan Mulry, and others) for an informal social gathering at Capitol Lounge, just ONE BLOCK from the Library of Congress. We do need people to RSVP though so we know how much space to reserve.

WHERE: Capitol Lounge, 229 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC 20003
WHEN: Wednesday, February 11th, 5:30 to 7:30
WHO: Anyone attending the conference or living in/near DC who loves romance novels
COST: FREE (cash bar)
CONTACT: Elisabeth Lane at for questions about the event

RSVP by February 6th so we have a sense of how many lovely romance writers and readers to expect!

Social registration link:

Other useful links:

Popular Romance Project main site
Film screening registration
Conference registration
Conference program at Teach Me Tonight
Smart Bitches Trashy Books Bitchery Gathering


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Faberge Cat by Anne Weale 2015 TBR Challenge

When I saw that this month's TBR Challenge was short stories (category romances included), I knew I had to sign up. See that pile of categories up there? Well, there are stacks more like it. I really love category romances from the 70s, 80s and 90s and I live in a place where I have ready access to a lot of them. I love how they provide an insight into the social systems and romantic conceptions of the fairly recent past. So much has changed, maybe even more than I sometimes realize. And I love how they're a complete crapshoot; sometimes you get a brilliant one and sometimes you get, well, you get The Faberge Cat.

In the past, I read an Anne Weale book I really loved called The River Room. It offered a fascinating juxtaposition of modern setting (for the 1970s) and slightly old-fashioned mores (GR review here). The changing rules around work, gender roles and sex in the 1970s made for inherent conflict that I thought was explored in interesting and romantic ways. The problem is, when you pick up that book and that conflict and try to plop it down the early 1990s, it doesn't work as well. Mainly because times changed. And people changed. And what seemed a little bit charmingly retro in a book from the 1970s seemed reactionary and unbelievable in a book from the 1990s.

The Faberge Cat had a truly promising start. The heroine, Jane Taunton, is working as a secretary in London and living with an older woman who has taken an interest in her well-being. Her formerly very wealthy and popular landlady still occasionally gets invitations to high-flying society functions, but she is in poor health and can no longer attend herself. So she sends Jane in one of her fabulously gorgeous vintage dresses to attend in her place and hopefully meet an eligible young man. Never mind that Jane is ambivalent about meeting a man.

So far, so good. Well, sort of. The opening scene in the book contains some casual racism and classism that I might have, if not quite overlooked, at least understood better in an older book. But not one from the 1990s. And there's a hint of "good girls don't" when it comes to sex. Both issues are nicely encapsulated in this little gem of a passage.

"I 'ope that don't mean what it sounds like," said Anita, with a giggle. "She could get 'erself into trouble."

At this she got ticked off by Winnie [sic]. "You've made Miss Jane blush with your rude talk. Diner a deux is French. It means to have dinner with one other person, usually a man," said Mrs. Chichester.

"Is that right? I must try that out at the salon," said Anita. "Sounds classy, a bit of French. I know some Italian...ciao and arrivederci! Oh, look at the time. I'd better be going. I'm 'aving diner a deux in McDonald's with Brad in 'alf an hour."

Both attitudes are sadly not so unusual, I suppose, even in some romances today. Unfortunately, it's off-putting for me and none are things I can just excuse.

Then Jane arrives at the affair and meets the tall, broad-shouldered, better than handsome, steady, intelligent Adam Fontenay, who we are also informed has excellent teeth. I joke, but really it's quite an entrance. He seems to be an art historian and appraiser. He's sophisticated, educated and dreamy in every way. He even explains how the gallery keeps the wood furniture from acquiring water rings during parties--with cling film. Initially, I was Adam's biggest fan. Here's an example:

"I'm unmarried," he said. "But even that information can be misleading when so many people live together...and sometimes have partners of their own as well as the opposite sex. If it interests you--and I hope it does--at present I have no close relationship, but those I've had have been with girls."

Unfortunately, things slide downhill rather quickly. Intimidated by Adam's sophistication, Jane decides to lie to him about who she is, where she lives and what her background is. When he gets a call in the middle of dinner and needs to rush to his father's side in Suffolk, he leaves abruptly and Jane gives him a false telephone number, assuming their paths will never cross again, secure in the belief that if he knew how unimportant she really is, he'd want nothing to do with little old her.

Because this is a romance, inevitably their paths do cross again when Mrs. Chichester passes away and her rapacious nephew decides to turn out all her lodgers and sell the house. Luckily Jane has an aged uncle in Suffolk who intends to leave her his house and antiques business when he goes and she is able to go and live with him, taking care of him in his last days and trying to revive the business. When Jane runs into Adam again, she does come clean rather quickly, which was a relief. Sometimes those falsehoods drag on way too long for me, a device I'm exceptionally impatient with. Less of a relief was Adam's reaction. He was perhaps understandably less than impressed with her deception, but nothing explains or excuses what comes next.

"It's late and I'm tired," Jane protested.

"So am I...tired of trying to fathom why you couldn't tell me straight out that you didn't want to see me again. I've been given the brush-off before but never by your devious method. I want to know why you put me to the trouble and expense of calling a number in Florence which wasn't your number. Was it your idea of a joke?"
What could she say? How could she possibly explain?
As she stood there, dumb with embarrassment, Adam put both hands on her shoulders and gave her an impatient shake.
"Answer me!"
Jane stiffened, her chin coming up and her eyes beginning to flash.
"Perhaps I had a premonition that under the suave veneer there was a bad-tempered boor. Please take your hands off me!"
As he had his back to the moon which was still fairly low in the sky, it was difficult to see the expression in his eyes. But his hands didn't leave her shoulders. If anything his fingers tightened.

Well, no. Just no. There's the fact that he demands an explanation, when he really isn't entitled to anything at all after one date. And then he shakes her. On the next page, he also explains why that was perfectly justified. And frankly this is basically where Weale lost me, though I did finish the book. It's not that Adam doesn't have good qualities. He does. And Jane, well, I wanted to love her. I really did.

But it comes out later that she has had a child out of wedlock, which she thinks will keep her from ever getting serious with a man ever again. This is despite the fact that her father threw her out when she got pregnant (she was engaged to the father, but he died in a motorcycle accident before they could marry) and the child lives with her elder sister, who claims the girl as her own. So the child doesn't live with her, even though Jane wishes she could. And wants her. But the sister isn't so sure she wants to give the girl up since she regards her now as her own daughter. I'm not judgmental of Jane having had a child--that would be ridiculous. But Weale seems to expect me to be. Like it's this great and glorious conflict and these men are so very kind not to hold it against her. The whole thing was frankly baffling.

Plus there's another man, an auctioneer named Dick, who while he is supposed to be the kind, gentle, reasonable, but fairly unromantic foil to Adam, kind of lives up to his name. He's sly, manipulative and just can't take a hint. He's also fairly under the thumb of his mother, despite the fact that he's a widower with a son of his own and his protestations to the contrary. Jane doesn't exactly tell him directly that she doesn't think of him romantically because Jane doesn't tend to tell anyone anything directly. She gets accused later in the book of stringing him along (by the uncle she's gone to live with) and honestly, it's kind of what she does. She thinks Adam might be too much of a rake for her with his fast reputation. But even though she finds Adam fascinating and lovable, she isn't quite willing to let go of the safety, security and fidelity that Dick promises. So really, no one one is above reproach in the way things work out.

And of course, it all works out in the end. Jane uncle dies, leaving her the house. Adam proposes, having discovered on his own about Jane's daughter, Jane turns down Dick's proposal (though only after accepting Adam's) and all is right with the world. Yay. Except by that point I really didn't care. None of these characters, except perhaps Jane and Adam's mutual friend Ros Farnham, a widow and the only voice of reason in the whole book, held any interest for me. Both Adam and Dick were abusive in their own ways. Jane's uncle was a bad-tempered grudge-holder of epic proportions. And Jane herself was, well, namby pamby and concerned about things that seemed horribly out-dated for the publication date of the book.

I did relent in my feelings about the out of wedlock child storyline somewhat when it was pointed out to me that a 9-year-old child would have been born around 1984. Madonna's song Papa Don't Preach came out in 1986, two years later, and even then, it was viewed with some dismay (thanks to Lexxi Callahan for that reminder). But I still can't help but feel the attitudes and mores present in The Faberge Cat were ones held by a much older generation, transported somewhat clumsily into the 1990s.

While in The River Room (1979), also by Weale, I was presented with a book about a woman who valued her independence, her career and her self-respect, I didn't get any such impressions from the heroine of The Faberge Cat. She refused to stand up for herself to anyone, getting trampled by her landlady, Adam, Dick, her uncle, her sister, Dick's mother and virtually everyone else. She never extends herself to acquire Adam, waiting for him to approach her in the last few pages of the book. She sort of stumbles around career-wise, unable to commit to anything. She just seems utterly deprived of agency, which was curious since I felt so differently about the heroine of the book Weale had written 14 years before.

All in all, I'd be willing to give Anne Weale another shot, but I'll probably stick to the ones written in the 1970s and 1980s from now on. I'm still intrigued by the dichotomy she presents between heroines not quite ready for modern living and the fast-evolving world around them, an historical interest if nothing else. But I think I can safely say I'll be avoiding her later works from now on.

Next month's TBR Challenge is "Recommended Read" and E from Bookpushers has been after me for months to read Nalini Singh. So I'm finally going to pick up Angels' Blood off the old TBR.

Let me know in the comments if you're interested in reading along and I'll pick a hashtag!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Party Lines Fiesta Chicken Salad

Emma Barry is one of my favorite romance writers. And I'm not just saying that because she's a friend. She's one of those writers who could write cereal box copy and I'd read it and love it. But add in the romance and politics and Washington, DC settings of the Easy Part series and this West Wing loving election junkie was basically in wonktastic heaven. Party Lines is the third book in the series and while it could be read as a stand-alone, it will be richer having read the previous two books as the other two couples make appearances here and take a final curtain call at the end of this book.

Party Lines tells the story of two opposing campaign staffers working political campaigns in the run-up to the American Presidential election. Lydia Reales is an ambitious, idealistic Latina who also happens to be a Republican Presidential campaign staffer, a development that plays with both the hero's and the reader's expectations. Lydia is just starting out on the national stage and while she has all the makings of a top staffer, she runs into obstacles to being taken seriously as a professional along the way, largely because some of her superiors seem to see her as a token minority brought on board to appeal to the Latino portion of the electorate. She experiences microaggressions throughout the novel, mainly in a professional context, some of which she shrugs off, some of which irritate her. I cringed for her over and over again. It was Lydia, ambitious, competent, aggressive Lydia who really made this book for me. I might not agree with her politics, but I was rooting for her the whole way through.

While Michael Picetti is the more seasoned staffer, he has also become jaded in orchestrating run after Presidential run for various sub-par Democratic candidates. Michael assumes that Lydia is naive, in need of a friend and a Democrat like him, all because of her age and her ethnicity. But it's clear to the reader that there's some mansplaining going on during their first conversation on an airplane on the way to Iowa. And...well...after that too. He's an interesting illustration of privilege because he is aware of the issues surrounding sexism, racism and economic inequality. But he's also an educated white male, which blinds him to certain things. I liked how Barry treated this because it's both realistic and sensitively handled. I didn't dislike Michael for it, while still being able to acknowledge that some of his attitudes and utterances are insensitive.

When Lydia and Michael clash, which they do, repeatedly, both in and out of the bedroom, it's pretty explosive. Not only do they disagree on a lot of policy questions, they are at different points in their political careers. Lydia is just reaching the last camp before attempting the summit of American electioneering. Michael has been sitting at the summit for a while and is ready to start back--maybe get out of a position where he has to keep traveling all the time and settle down a bit. So these two have a lot of challenges to work through. We're kept guessing throughout, not finding out until the very end whether these two are going to be able to make it work long-term.

Unlike the first two books (and especially the second book, Private Politics), Party Lines really does explore ins and outs of American politics. There is a substantial amount of discussion about policy and elections, both between Lydia and Michael and among the various campaign staffers. Despite the fact that some readers may not enjoy the side of politics with their romance, I'm glad Barry didn't shy away from it. No matter what side of the aisle readers fall on, they will find their views fairly and equitably represented. Barry seems to be reminding us that whether or not we can agree on policy, we are all complicit in the state of our political system.

I'm desolate that this is the last book in this tremendous series. I very much enjoyed everything about it--from the focus on work and family and balancing priorities to the measured development of the romances between the characters. While these books have used romance tropes, conventions and language at every step, there's a realism to them that I don't commonly see, even in contemporaries. Lydia and Michael and the other heroes and heroines have read like me, like my friends, like the people and situations I've come to know living in DC for the last almost 20 years. I'm eager to see what Barry comes up with next.

Oh, Applebee's. How I love to hate you with your 2,000 calorie pseudo-salads large enough to feed a family of four. Though I do understand why Lydia and Michael end up there together, having what might be the strangest accidental first date ever. I did campaign field work for a while, starting with a congressional race and moving onto some issue campaigns. And at the height of campaign season, an hour to eat something that wasn't Chex Mix, any hour at all, would have left me overcome with relief. Even if it involved eating at Applebee's. Truly, campaigns leave absolutely zero time for anything other than campaigning. Well, unless that time is after midnight and involves vast quantities of red wine and/or Jack Daniels.

This salad is based on an actual Applebee's menu item, which I've never had and don't ever intend to. So this isn't precisely a copycat recipe. I just used the description on their website to come up with something that might somewhat resemble what Michael orders in that pivotal scene. Though honestly, I have to wonder what Applebee's is thinking here. The original menu item purports to have "chimichurri-glazed chicken" which does make any sense to me because chimichurri is an Argentinian condiment comprised mainly of olive oil and parsley. How you make a "glaze" out of oil was impenetrable to me.

So instead I basically made broiled southwestern style chicken slices and topped the whole thing off with black bean and corn salsa, a bit of cheddar cheese and used the chimichurri as a dressing. It makes more than you'll need, but is traditionally used on any kind of grilled or roasted fish, fowl or meat. So you can use it to dress up a simple dish later in the week if you end up with extra.

Finally, I've called for crumbled tortilla chips here to add a little bit of extra crunch as a garnish. I actually went ahead and deep-fried five thinly-sliced corn tortillas in about two cups of vegetable oil in a small saucepan, but frankly, that's a lot of effort and mess for a topping. So you could do that or you could take the easier route (which admittedly didn't occur to me until after I'd eaten the salad) and just do the crumbled chip thing.

I might be a complete snob when it comes to Applebee's, but hopefully I'm not totally unreasonable.

Fiesta Chicken Salad
Makes: 4 servings
Time: 90 minutes (30 minutes hands-on)

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (approximately 1 pound), sliced on the diagonal
1/4 cup lime juice (from 2 limes)
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons cilantro
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/4 teaspoon cumin

Black Bean & Corn Salsa
1 15.5 ounce can black beans
1 15.5 ounce can corn
1 12 ounce jar roasted red peppers
1/2 red onion, diced
1/4 cup cilantro, minced
1 jalapeno, seeds & ribs removed, minced
1 tablespoon cumin
2 tablespoons lime juice (from 1 lime)
salt and pepper to taste

Chimichurri Dressing & Salad
1 cup packed fresh Italian (flat) parsley
1/2 cup olive oil
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup packed cilantro
2 garlic cloves
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 heads Boston or Bibb lettuce
4 ounces of cheddar cheese, shredded
crumbled tortilla chips for garnish

1. Combine marinade ingredients in a medium bowl. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.

2. Combine salsa ingredients in a medium bowl and set aside. I started with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. It's pretty flavorful already so it doesn't need much.

3. Adjust oven rack to top third of the oven and preheat the broiler. Cover a cookie tray in aluminum foil and arrange marinated chicken slices in a single layer. Broil for 5 minutes, flip using tongs and broil for an additional 3 minutes.

4. Add dressing ingredients to a food processor or blender (minus the lettuce, cheese & tortilla chips) and mix until combined.

5. Tear lettuce into pieces and distribute among four plates. Top with 1/2 cup salsa, 1 ounce shredded cheese, 1/4 of the chicken, a few crumbled tortilla chips and about a tablespoon of the dressing. All ingredients can be made up to a day ahead and refrigerated. This chicken is just as good cold as it is hot.

Disclosure: I received Party Lines from the author for review purposes. We also converse frequently via email and Twitter.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Liberty & Other Stories Smoked Tea BBQ Ribs

I'm a pretty cerebral romance reader. It's rare that I read one book by an author that so transports me I can't write anything intelligent about it, much less two. So when it comes to Alexis Hall's work, I'm three books in and still struggling to write anything coherent, both because it's just not how I want to experience these stories and because every time I try, I come out with a 6,000 word blog post (don't worry--this post isn't quite that long). There is plenty of meat on these bones. They're so infernally clever, complex, rich and varied that I want to do them justice.

Liberty & Other Stories is a book of short stories set in the same universe as last year's Prosperity, and there may be differing opinions on this, but I think it doesn't really work as a stand-alone. It's comprised of Shackles, Squamous with a Chance of Rain, Cloudy Climes and Starless Skies, and Liberty. I'm focusing on Shackles here because it's a prequel to Prosperity, the story of Ruben Crowe's first meeting with Milord. They're both characters I'm actually rather ambivalent about in terms of my personal feelings, but which somehow doesn't impact how I experience their interactions. Both characters have limitations in my eyes, which made them wrong for Picadilly, the charming, effervescent narrator of Prosperity, but perfect for each other.

Shackles was actually reminiscent of Rumpelstiltskin, the Grimm fairy tale. Both Milord and Ruben Crowe are struggling with identity here, a struggle which continues into Prosperity. Milord is a crime lord who can't be a crime lord from what is effectively death row. And Ruben feels out of place as a noble and has been defrocked as a priest. We get the sense he's just...drifting. And the way Ruben repeatedly leaves and returns to Milord in prison recollects the little man returning to the princess each night as she searches for his true name. I couldn't help but think of Ruben's desire for Milord's redemption, which definitely doesn't happen within the bounds of Shackles and barely happens within the bounds of Prosperity: trying to spin Milord into gold, despite his very straw-like, base capabilities.

There are some theological reasons that persistently annoy me about Ruben, but I'm not going to go into that here. Suffice to say, I find it hard to like him, which is actually a good thing. Otherwise, I might have had difficulty with the romance. And Milord is a master manipulator, controlling every move Ruben makes even as he pretends helplessness: both monster and princess. Knowing what's coming further down the line for them made Shackles all the more interesting because, aside from Ruben not dying at the end, there is little indication here that Milord is in any way redeemable in the way Ruben hopes for.

That said, the fact that I have doubts about both Milord and Ruben as people doesn't diminish my joy at their happy ending in Prosperity. Whether I like them isn't the point. The point is that they love each other and find a way to make it work, despite their limitations. It's a subject that seems to be emerging as something of a theme of Hall's: that everyone, regardless of their worth to society, is worthy of love. It's also the the perfect foil for the romance that develops between Picadilly and Byron Kae, the aethermancer of the ship that brings all of these characters together: a dramatic, tempestuous thing that highlights the slow-developing, quietly magical quality of Dil & BK's relationship. And it's that relationship, the one between Picadilly and Byron Kae, that I'm reluctant to spoil by writing about in depth. So you'll just have to read Cloudy Climes and Starless Skies, which is one of my favorite stories I've ever read anywhere. Ever.

I've said several times that these two books (Prosperity and Liberty & Other Stories) would make an excellent doctoral thesis in the future. But they also function as pure narrative: engaging stories that, in your excitement, you'll either rush to finish or pause to savor. I'd recommend reading Prosperity prior to picking up this volume. There is also a free short available in the same universe which further explores the dreams and desires of a minor character in Cloudy. And since anything to do with Byron Kae appears to be my kryptonite, I can only hope that more Prosperity universe books will be forthcoming, particularly as someone who was once kind to BK, Captain Edward Rackham, comes into focus in Cloudy Climes and Starless Skies and struck me as kinda dreamy. Probably needless to say at this point, I'd be overjoyed for more.

Smoked tea is definitely not for everyone. Which sort of makes lapsang souchong the perfect thing for Milord to love and for Ruben to bring him in prison because I think they're both sort of acquired tastes in their own ways. If you follow me on Twitter, you know that the first iteration of cooking-with-lapsang-souchong didn't work as well as I'd hoped. I tried several iterations of a sweet, dessert-like thing, but I apparently have odd taste because what tasted divine to me was too strange for everyone else.

Lapsang souchong has great body and complexity and was really fun to cook with. Instead of working against its smokiness like in the first recipe, I decided to work with it. And what says smoke more emphatically than BBQ sauce? From my searches online, it's pretty clear that this is not a new idea. That said, the recipes I saw tended to include things like pears in syrup and grape jelly and store-bought ketchup. Um...yuck. So I just decided to start from scratch.

The reason the smoked tea is perfect here is that I actually made these ribs in the oven instead of on the grill or in a smoker. For the simple reason that I don't have a grill. Or a smoker. And it's also January. And 10 degrees outside. Sometimes I really miss California. In the past I have often used smoked sea salt or bacon to give a smoky flavor to meat cooked in the oven, but in the future, I can see myself using a lot of finely ground lapsang. It's perfect for getting smoky depth without the fat and crunchiness of bacon or the...well...saltiness of salt.

This sauce is really easy. You basically just boil the heck out of it, puree it, then boil it again. So it's a bit time-consuming (more so than just grabbing a bottle of premade anyway), but since it makes 4 cups, you can freeze it in one cup portions and use it to dress up any grilled or roasted meat. I used it to make baby back ribs right off, which took about a cup and a half along with a spice rub that I'll also include below. It's sort of based off an Asian flavor palate too so it would be really good added to ground turkey turning these pork meatballs subs into turkey burgers with quick-pickled radishes, cilantro & jalapeno, but the options are really endless. I think that might be dinner tonight so I'll post photos to Facebook if it works as well as I hope.

But don't worry about using it up. It's good enough that you'll want it on pretty much everything.

Smoked Tea BBQ Sauce
Makes: 4 cups
Time: 30 minutes

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, diced
1 teaspoon minced garlic
6 ounces boiling water
3 1/2 tablespoons lapsang souchong loose tea, separated (see below)
1 14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes (fire-roasted preferable)
1 6 ounce can tomato paste
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon mustard
1/2 cup sweet chili sauce
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
3 tablespoons lemon juice
salt & pepper

1. In a medium saucepan, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add diced onions and cook until soft and translucent, approximately 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook for 30 seconds more.

2. While onions cook, combine 6 ounces boiling water with 3 tablespoons of lapsang souchong tea and allow to steep for 3 minutes. When onions and garlic are cooked, pour the tea through a strainer into the saucepan with the onion.

3. Add diced tomatoes, tomato paste, brown sugar, mustard, sweet chili sauce, soy sauce, crushed red pepper and lemon juice and stir to combine. In a spice grinder or mortar and pestle, grind the remaining 1 tablespoon tea until finely ground, adding 1/2 tablespoon to the sauce. Boil for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

4. Using a stick blender or by pouring sauce into a standing blender, blend the sauce until smooth. Taste and add salt and pepper as desired. I used 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of pepper. Boil an additional 5 minutes to reduce.

Smoked Tea BBQ Ribs
Makes: rub for 1 rack of ribs
Time: 5 minutes

2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 tablespoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 tablespoon lapsang souchong tea, finely ground (dry)
1 rack of baby back ribs
1 1/2 cups Smoky Tea BBQ Sauce, separated

1. Combine chili powder, brown sugar, salt, pepper, cayenne, tea in a small bowl and whisk to combine.

2. Rub ribs with the spice rub and bring to room temperature on the counter (about 45 minutes). Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

3. Bake ribs for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and preheat broiler. Baste with 1/2 cup BBQ sauce on each side and broil 3 minutes each side.

4. Cut ribs apart and serve with additional 1/2 cup BBQ sauce for dipping. I also made hushpuppies and sauteed garlic spinach, but any kind of traditional BBQ side would be great with these: coleslaw, potato salad, mashed potatoes, cornbread--the options are endless.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of Liberty & Other Stories form the publisher and I am friendly with both the book's author and editor.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Year of Doing Hard Things

I'm hereby dubbing 2015 "The Year of Doing Hard Things". I'm not trained as a chef or a photographer or a book reviewer or a graphic designer or a web developer. I spent most of my career in marketing. Marketing for small organizations is a funny sort of discipline. I ended up teaching myself the basics of a lot of different things because we often couldn't afford to hire a professional or because I couldn't make a case for better whatever without first illustrating why doing it ourselves wasn't good enough.

But as I've progressed as a blogger, all my self-taughtness has become increasingly frustrating. So, rather than continuing to coast along, learning what I need to learn as I need to learn it, I'm going to focus on a few specific skills/goals this year. Here's what I'm interested in learning, along with the first step for each goal, just to keep me honest. I'll post an update near the end of every month and provide mid-month updates on Twitter using hashtag #2015DHT.

1. Learn to shoot in Manual mode.

I have a really, really nice camera. And a really, really nice 50mm, 1.8f lens. But I still shoot in Automatic mode. Why? I don't understand anything about shutter speed or aperture or any of the photography terms I see bandied about on the web. So I'm going to take a class. First step: find an in-person or online class/set of tutorials that I connect with.

2. Post more photos of recipe steps to either Flickr/Picasa or Facebook.

I take approximately 30-50 photos per recipe post from different angles, with different lighting, with different compositions in order to get the 5-6 shots I use. About half of those are recipe steps, which are always ugly (I mean, I'm cooking and usually covered in flour so I rarely think about staging in that moment). I'd like to get better about those so I don't feel so awkward about sharing more of them and also get more useable shots of the finished product, which means less guessing about what might look good and more, well, knowing. I have no idea if there are classes for food photography, but someone has probably done online tutorials if I look. First step: find tutorials.

3. Make my recipes easily downloadable/printable.

It has come to my attention that some people actually use my recipes. Pretty nifty! But I can only imagine it must be somewhat frustrating because of how they're written. A lot of food blogs have nifty plug-ins that enable a standardized format and easily printable recipe pages. But they only work on Wordpress and I'm currently hosted on Blogger with my own domain name. Complicating this process is the fact that the theme I have installed was designed for Blogger only. First step: find out how to move my blog to self-hosting with Wordpress.

4. Develop more of my own recipes.

This is a challenge because I love to bake and baking is very precise. I also like to bake complicated things, like this Dobos Torte I made at Christmas (my effort/photo is above). In order to do that though, I have to plan for more failures since not everything I invent myself works. I'm not sure to what degree this is possible and it's not as well-defined a goal as the others. Like, how many recipes should be exclusively mine? What about books where the most obvious choice is something basic that I really can't invent myself? First step: schedule recipe reviews at least a month in advance.

P.S. I' m also doing Wendy the Super Librarian's 2015 TBR Challenge so you can expect to see those posts pop up once a month too. They may have recipes attached or they may not depending on whether something grabs me food-wise or they may not since the point of my doing this challenge is to read some of the things that I might not choose to review otherwise (as well as putting a dent in that TBR pile). My first book will be The Fabergé Cat by Anne Weale, a Harlequin Romance from 1994, if anyone wants to read along.

What this will add up to is two more posts per month, which will be in addition to my usual Monday and Thursday posts. Otherwise, nothing much will change, except hopefully, better photos, better, more useable recipes and less frustration for me. WHEEE!

So is there anything on this list you're good at? Anything you'd like to learn?

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong Dried Apple Pie

A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong was eagerly awaited by this avid Cecilia Grant fan. Her Blackshear Family series is one for the few currently publishing Regency romance series I have consistently enjoyed. I love that her characters get into interesting scrapes and yet still feel like historical romance characters, not just contemporary heroes and heroines dressed up in period garb. This new novella highlights everything I have loved about Grant's work in the past and would be a great introduction for anyone who hasn't yet picked up one of her books.

This robust novella features eldest brother Andrew Blackshear, who has come across as fairly stern and judgmental in the other Blackshear books. He stays true to character here, which I loved because often when a hero is portrayed as something other than the powerful protector or the charming rake, he undergoes some kind of miraculous transformation prior to his book that changes him into a more marketable type. And while Andrew does change significantly over the course of this book, it's gradual and, given the extreme circumstances, entirely believable.

The major extreme circumstance is the heroine, Lucy Sharp, daughter of a widower mainly concerned with his hunting birds and modern philosophy. She has never been into society and has very little understanding of the theology, ethics, morality and rules of behavior that are Andrew's entire existence. Where Andrew is rules and duty personified, Lucy is chaos and sensibility. So when her coachman has an accident and can't drive her to the Christmas house party she has been eagerly anticipating, she cons Andrew in to taking her in his carriage.

It's not surprising when nothing goes as Andrew planned. Lucy's cheerful and oblivious disregard for propriety drive Andrew up a wall of course. His sternness and inflexibility are compromised right along with Lucy's reputation though, making for a fun and amusing read where everything does indeed go perfectly wrong until it's all right again.

A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong was the last of my holiday reads. Today being the last day of Christmas, liturgically speaking, I thought it would be a nice send-off to the 2014 holiday season. I hope everyone is having a lovely New Year thus far and a happy Epiphany!

This is the easiest apple pie I've ever made. Seriously. I love apple pie, but what I don't love is peeling and coring all those apples. It's so time-consuming! I know there are peeler/corer gadgets that makes it easier, but I have a small kitchen and am categorically opposed to gadgets that I will only use once or twice a year at most. And when I do make pie, it's usually for an event, not just dessert for my household of two. So there are other kitchen projects going on at the same time, making all the hands-on time of a normal apple pie a pain in the...well...yeah.

I'm assuming the heroine, as the unintended house guest of a down-and-out family, is using dried apples to make a Christmas pie because that's what would have been available in December in Regency England. Here in the United States in the 21st century though, the biggest problem I had with this recipe was sourcing the apples. Freeze-dried apple rings seem pretty common and you should absolutely not use those. After trying all my organic and gourmet grocery store options though, I sent my husband to Walmart for a new computer mouse and finally he found dried apple wedges there. I'm not sure why they get low reviews on the Walmart site. I didn't have any problems with them and thought they were pretty tasty just on their own.

The great thing is that rehydrating the apples instead of peeling and coring fresh ones takes about an hour, but it's totally hands-off time. They just sit in hot cider in a bowl on the counter, then you cook them for about 10 minutes to soften them up before putting them in the pie and baking. I was skeptical whether this would be any good, but I honestly would never have known they weren't fresh apples if I hadn't made it myself. The apples really held up nicely in the pie and the texture was perfect.

As for the crust, I'm never making pie crust any other way again. In the past, I had tried making pie crust with vodka, which is what the original Cook's Illustrated Recipe calls for and it's a miracle. Using part butter, part shortening is something I've always done because butter makes pie crust flaky and shortening makes it tender. But having liquid that evaporates in the oven and doesn't activate  gluten in the dough makes this pie crust almost foolproof. I say almost because 1) it's better and easier with a food processor, which not everyone has and 2) you still have to be careful not to overmix the dough, which is true of any pie crust.

In this particular recipe, I substituted Virginia single malt whisky for the vodka just to see if the extra flavor in the pie crust was interesting and I was a big fan. Having tried it now with both vodka and whisky, I suspect that any liquor that's about 80 proof or 40% alcohol would work just fine: brandy with peaches, rum for banana cream pies, kirsch for cherry pie. The options are pretty much endless. I intend to try them all!

Dried Apple Pie with Bourbon Pie Crust
adapted from Cook's Illustrated and

Makes: 12 servings
Time: 2 1/2 hours (hands-on time: 30 minutes)

3 cups dried apple wedges (approximately 9 ounces)
2 1/2 cups spiced apple cider (I used Trader Joe's)
3/4 cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon for dusting
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons milk or 1 egg white for brushing top of pie.

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
12 tablespoons cold unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1/2 cup chilled solid vegetable shortening, cut into 4 pieces
1/4 cup bourbon, cold
1/4 cup ice cold water

1. Put dried apples in a medium bowl. Heat cider to a boil and pour over dried apples. Let stand 1 hour.

2. Process 1 1/2 cups flour, salt, and sugar in food processor until combined, about 2 one-second pulses. Add butter and shortening and process until crumbs start to collect into clumps, about 15 seconds (there should be no uncoated flour). Scrape bowl with rubber spatula and redistribute dough evenly around processor blade. Add remaining cup flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and mass of dough has been broken up, 4 to 6 quick pulses. Empty mixture into medium bowl.

3. Sprinkle bourbon and water over mixture. With rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix, pressing down on dough until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together.

4. Divide dough into two even balls and flatten each into 4-inch disk. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days.

5. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

6. Cook apples in cider for 10 minutes or until tender. Do not overcook. They will continue to cook in the oven.

7. In a large bowl, stir together sugar, cinnamon, flour, nutmeg and salt. Add apples and stir to coat.

8. Roll out one disc of pie dough for a 9" pie plate. Line pie plate with dough. Add apples.

9. Roll out second disc of dough and top the filling. Trim around the edges of the plate, then pinch together crusts, rolling pinched together crusts inward about half an inch. Pinch to form fluted edge. If desired, use scraps to cut out small, seasonally appropriate decorations (I used small holly leaves).

10. Using the milk or egg white, brush the top of the pie all over. Sprinkle with remaining 1 tablespoon sugar.

11. Bake for 45-50 minutes.
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