Thursday, March 26, 2015

Living in Sin joint review with Ana from The Immersed Reader

I love chatting on Twitter with Ana from Immersed in Books, but there's only so much in-depth book discussion that can happen in 140 characters. When we both wanted to read Living in Sin by Anastasia Vitsky, part of a new collection of lesbian romances about Damsels in Distress from Less Than Three Press, I suggested we team up and do a joint review. This was the result. One warning: here there be spoilers. Hope you enjoy!

In Living in Sin, Ciara and Audra have been living together for about nine months, but Ciara still had not come out to her family. Ciara is torn between telling her family they’re not just roommates or losing Audra. A visit from her ailing grandmother in a dream gives her insights into what she should do, but it’s still not easy to choose between the family you love and the family you chose.

Elisabeth: So, Ana, what did you think about Living in Sin?

Ana: I had really mixed feelings. I usually enjoy relationship/marriage in trouble books, but there wasn’t enough focus on the relationship for me. I felt the focus of the story was off, enough for me to think of it less as romance and more as Women’s fiction. It is almost wholly centered on Ciara, her feelings and fears about coming out to her family, rather than on her love for Audra.

Elisabeth: It definitely felt like we were dropped into the middle of a story instead of a romance with a beginning, middle and end. They’ve already been through the courtship phase and the ending doesn’t offer total resolution either.

Ana: I thought that Vitsky did a great job portraying the awful relationship despair you can end up in when you have a ongoing conflict without resolution. Their tension, the initial fight, were really well done.

What did you think of the Dream Grandma interlude?

Elisabeth: That was an unexpected element. I had the idea that Ciara’s family was probably Christian, though it never stated that directly in the text, I don’t think? But it seemed like probably not the sort of white, Mainline Protestantism that I’m most familiar with. There are lots of different permutations of Christianity around the world though. So I found the dream grandma bit fascinating. There was almost this ancestor-worship element, which if the case, would make Ciara’s dilemma about how much to tell her family about Audra especially difficult. So the idea that Dream Grandma didn’t seem opposed to their relationship felt powerful.

Ana: We have a very brief reference to churchgoing during the first visit with the family. Aunt Marge chastises Ciara for missing church and mentions the pastor Janice speaking about homosexual marriage in her latest sermon. I thought there was an interesting disconnect between dream grandma and Ciara’s ideas about her grandmother. Dream grandma does seem to be open to Ciara pursuing her heart, but she has been Ciara’s excuses. Maybe not that grandma would oppose but that it would be the straw to break her mother’s already over loaded back.

Your mention of white Christianity is interesting. I didn't pick up or notice if Ciara or Audra were POC, but I do know that in PR I grew up with a greater acceptance that God or your family might speak to you through dreams. Dream Grandma was more problematic to me in that I wasn’t sure at point what her message really was.

Elisabeth: I see the ambiguity too. Though upon reflection, it seemed that maybe Dream Grandma was just saying that Ciara isn’t alone. That Dream Grandma had to make difficult choices for love too. Which also seems to jive with how the book ends--that she and Audra talk about going to see her family together.

Ana: I agree with that. I do think Ciara thought she was a special snowflake. She has this family she loves, that she doesn’t want to risk, and Audra should just deal with it. Dream Grandma saying, you aren’t the only one who has ever had to make hard choices, and that those choices are going to be different for every person was the kick in the pants she needed.

Elisabeth: Ciara’s special snowflake status was where the first person narration was most effective for me. I think however sympathetic we are to Ciara, it’s because we’re getting the whole of what she’s thinking. I think that with Audra’s perspective thrown into the mix, I would have had trouble siding with Ciara at all. But as it was, I felt bad for her. As much as I thought she should woman-up and tell her family, I also understood why she felt like she couldn’t.

Ana: I really missed Audra’s point of view. I responded quite negatively to Ciara initially, so I really wanted to see why Audra was sticking around for this. I think it was powerful to be Ciara’s head, and know her fears, but I would have a hard time staying with someone who would exclude me to the point Audra has been excluded.

What did you think about her relationship with her family? I felt that she wasn’t giving them enough credit. But at the same time, I understood her desire to avoid conflict.

Elisabeth: Gosh. I wasn’t sure what to think at first. That scene where the family relates the pastor’s sermon made it tough for me to be sure Ciara was making the wrong decision. But at the same time, they’re so close and seem to depend on one another so much that I hard a time believing they wouldn’t eventually come around. I guess though, in conflicts with my own family, I know that when you’re in the heat of the moment, you can’t always see that.

Ana: For me it was actually one of the later conversations which made me understand Ciara’s concerns. She mentions that her father would want to go after the man who turned her off boys, and since she is such a Daddy’s girl, I can see how she would want to avoid that at all costs. She doesn’t want to have to explain this to her dad. She sort of wants him to clue in on his own.

Elisabeth: And I didn’t even notice that dialogue at all. This is why reading with someone is fun. So, Ana, did anything else strike you about Living in Sin?

Ana: I think it had an interesting perspective. In the end I really appreciated that it wasn’t an “all or nothing” kind of message, and the ending was hopeful, but it really didn’t satisfy my romance expectations. It was bittersweet.

Elisabeth: It reminded me of some of the stories from last year’s RAINN anthologies that way. I would have really liked a more definitive ending too. It did seem to end on a positive note, but I wanted a bigger payoff in the form of true acknowledgment of their relationship from her family or a public kiss or something.

Ana: I agree with you, it did remind me particularly of Ruthie Knox’s story in the Summer Rain anthology, similar bittersweet tone. It really made me curious to read something else from Less than Three Press and see if this is typical of their Lesbian romantic fiction, or if the ambiguity was just in this story, because I do look for more.

Elisabeth: I grabbed a couple of lesbian romances from this publisher and have only read one other thus far, but that one has a much more traditional romantic arc. It’s a fairy tale and there’s a meet-cute, some action and a definitive happy ending.

Ana: I am curious to try one of their historicals. I think they are offering some set during WWII. I will be more willing to try it knowing that it might have the story trajectory I’m looking for. Elizabeth, thanks for inviting me to read this with you. I probably wouldn't have picked it up otherwise and I enjoyed talking about it.

Elisabeth: Thanks for agreeing to join me! We talk about books on Twitter all the time, but it was nice to have an extended conversation instead of being confined to 140 characters. We should do this again some time. Next time you get to pick the book though.

Ana: Challenge accepted!

A lifelong genre reader, Ana grew up reading fantasy, sci-fi & mystery novels in Puerto Rico. Ana discovered comics in college before finally wandering into the Romance section a few years ago after bawling through yet another YA dystopian series. A recovering English and History double major, Ana is now a school librarian, mother of two geeky girls and a pastor's wife in Rochester, NY. When she is not reading or writing reviews, she is knitting or planning her next trip. She writes about books at her blog: Immersed in Books and on Twitter as @anacoqui.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Love in the Broken Places

I idly posted this on Twitter this morning, the result of a book I was reading, Living in Secret by Jackie Ashenden. I don't want to give away any spoilers and I'll review it at some point soon, but there seem to have been a lot of strong feelings turned up by my musing and I just wanted to, well, talk about it in more detail. This isn't going to be precisely confessional--that's not where I'm at with this stuff. But it will talk about mental health, a little bit about faith, some of the difficulties of depression and the role of romantic fiction in portraying both the fantasy and the realism of finding love in the broken places. Please exercise self-care going into this one and be kind and generous to each other in the comments, if you have any.

The hero and heroine in Living in Secret have both done things they aren't proud of, that they have been hiding from themselves and each other for many years. And there's a scene for each of them in the book when each describes the feeling of being hollowed out in the wake of confession, of an entirely satisfying and healthy emptiness where before there was only pain and guilt and loss and hurt. And these characters weren't in therapy, either of them. And I wasn't really wishing for them to have been because Ashenden did a fine job with the whole mess. But that empty was familiar to me from my own experiences with therapy and with depression.

Normally when we think of emptiness, I think we think of something sad or lacking. After all, we'd rather have a full belly or a heart full of love or a half-full glass. It's an expression of optimism, hope, satiety...fullness is good. It's been a long time since I was actively in therapy, but I remember this one moment of walking out of my therapist's office in Dupont Circle early one summer evening after an intense discussion during one of our ubiquitous DC thunderstorms. And as I walked to the Metro, there was just this...lightness. The horrible summer humidity had melted away after the storm. The city smelled all fresh and clean and still a little bit charged. I didn't feel happy, not just yet. But I felt empty--a good emptiness. The characters in Living in Secret are struggling more with guilt than depression, but when Ashenden described that emptiness, I knew just what she meant.

Most of the romance I love features quite broken people. My interest in this stems in part from my faith. Peculiarly perhaps, the idea of a humanity made in God's image, but broken and in need of redemption, a redemption that is on-going and yet to be completed, is comforting to me. It's less the presence of God in my life (find Jesus and you will be saved is sooo not my thing) than it is the idea that there is love out there for everyone and everything. And yes, I'm well aware that many Christians miss the point on this. For that I'm truly sorry every day. But that concept: that imperfection is what is expected of us and expected of life is so counter to my own instincts that it's, well, freeing.

So in terms of how redemption plays out in romance, particularly high-angst ones that involve weighty challenges like mental illness, trauma, anger management, the pain of loss of any kind, I sometimes have mixed feelings. Certainly the fantasy of redemption--of anyone and everyone finding love and being made whole by that love--is something that drives a lot of my romance reading. And I'm not sure I've said this before, but I am especially pleased when love and sex have a metaphysical effect on healing. It's not a very Christian ideal, but whatever. I am large. The idea that the elemental physicality of intimate union with another person could quite literally heal someone body and soul is super powerful. I'm not sure how much I believe in it in a naturalistic sense, but there's absolutely nothing I like better than to see it in romance. It's the kiss at the end of Beauty and the Beast, for heaven's sake.

But there's something about that kiss that I've felt and that I know from talking to others about this, one of my very favorite tropes: sometimes some of us don't want to see the Beast change into a prince. Sometimes we want to see him stay a Beast. Because he's sexy and primal and that's who we fell in love with over the course of the story, but for me at least as much, because he's imperfect. When loneliness, desperation, fear and hopelessness have been hollowed out of a person and love has slowly crept in to take its place, well, that's enough for me. I don't need the total redemption. The totally transformative power of love is something that I think has to happen over time, probably growing in the space after the happy ending, particularly in the case of the kinds of extreme difficulty that we get in high angst romance. And in the sometimes whirlwind courtships we get, as Ana Coqui pointed out.

And so this morning when I said that I was surprised that more romance characters aren't portrayed in therapy, this is the context for that statement. It wasn't the therapy that I'm exactly interested in, I guess. It's the hollowing out. The cool freshness after a thunderstorm. That moment of emptiness prior to reconciliation. It's the space a writer makes for hope to creep in. And in the case of romance, love too. It isn't about being deserving for me or being totally healed, neither of which hold any power at all. At bottom, I don't believe in total redemption or total perfection and I'm more likely to adore books that withhold it: that show that a selfish person is still just a little bit selfish, that a person with depression might still get depressed sometimes, that an irresponsible person is still sometimes irresponsible (or at least irrepressible--like Henry Page at the end of yesterday's review book Tempest).

And that their beloved loves them anyway. Even if they never turn into a Prince. That space is a space I can live in.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Tempest Smoked Mac & Cheese 2015 TBR Challenge

This month's TBR Challenge theme was "series catch-up" and while I'm stretching the spirit a little bit by both starting and finishing during the challenge month, the Playing the Fool series by Lisa Henry and J.A. Rock has been on my TBR pile since late last year. So I feel like it still qualifies even though the third book, Tempest, was just released earlier this month. Actually, "starting and finishing during the challenge month" is understating it. It was more like 18 hours from start to finish for all three books. So...these were pretty good.

Ryan 'Mac' McGuinness is an FBI agent called in to work a murder case involving a suspected mobster. But when his witness, Henry Page, slips out before he can answer any questions about what he saw, both Mac's pride and his case demand that he track Henry down and keep him around until the trial. But charismatic, slippery Henry is a con man and it takes him approximately .7 seconds to wrap anyone around his little finger, including Mac. Henry is a loveable goofball, the sidekick to Mac's stern and responsible FBI agent. But it's impossible to reduce these two to archetypes. Henry is frankly brilliant and Mac's not as straight-laced as he might at first seem.

This series, the first two books especially, have a playful detective buddy show tone with plenty of capers, hijinks and laugh-out-loud lines, but don't let that fool you. Under the surface humor, these fun stories have an undercurrent that's just a little bit dark at first, but that breaks loose during the third book. There's one scene in particular that packed quite an emotional wallop. Tempest is where the chickens come home to roost, with Mac running back to his parents' farm when he's unjustly targeted by a crooked internal affairs agent.

I wouldn't call the romance a slow burn exactly since the story seems to take place over the course of a few weeks at most and they get physical pretty early on (with kissing and what we would have called heavy petting in high school). But their emotional intimacy is hampered by the fact that Mac is really not supposed to get involved with a witness and Henry has, uh, trust issues. In fact, Henry isn't even his real name. Henry's true motivations are revealed in the second book and it isn't until the third that the two of them reach any kind of working accord.

Oh, and I should mention that Shakespeare fans will find lots to love here. The titles are all references to Shakespeare plays of course, but that's not where the references stop. And that's all I'll say because I don't want to ruin these for anyone. Anyway, the whole series is seriously clever and delightful and I'd recommend them to anyone. Truly, if you're not currently much of an m/m reader, these would be great starter books. Consider this my whole-hearted endorsement.

Heads up, AJ. This is your placemat pic ;-)

I don't want to give anything away, but the connection between these books and mac & cheese isn't precisely obvious until you read them. In fact, throughout the first book, I really thought I'd be making doughnuts. Suffice to say, Henry is a hoot and you'll just have to read the books to get in on the inside joke.

I've been making this smoked mac & cheese for a while now. It's a huge favorite with my D&D group. But when it's just my husband and I, the original version makes, well, just a lot of mac & cheese. And while neither of us are under doctor's orders to lay off the fat, this recipe is hardly healthy. So I've taken to scaling it down a bit.

Homemade mac & cheese is a little more difficult than the kind from a box, but trust me, this is so worth it. You make bechamel sauce first, which just flour cooked in butter with warmed milk and cream whisked in and cooked until it thickens. The you add the cheese and noodles and bake in the oven until the top gets nice and crispy.

The original recipe called for the smoked gouda and sprinkling the top with bacon, but I've been adding smoked paprika lately too just for a little extra kick. There are very few savory dishes that could not be improved with addition of smoked paprika, am I right?

Of course I am.

Smoked Mac & Cheese
adapted from Shugary Sweets
Difficulty: Intermediate
Time: 50 minutes (hands-on time: 25 minutes)
Makes: 8 servings as a side, 4 servings as a main dish

12 ounces elbow macaroni
5 strips of bacon, cooked and crumbled
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup flour
1 1/3 cup milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3/4 teaspoon pepper
heaping 1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 1/2 teaspoons worcestershire sauce
12 ounces smoked gouda, grated
6 ounces sharp cheddar, grated
1 1/2 cups panko breadcrumbs
2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Prepare macaroni according to package directions. If there is a range of cooking times (say, 9-12 minutes), cook the shorter time. Drain and set aside.

3. In a small saucepan, heat milk and cream until warm over low heat. In a large skillet, melt 3 tablespoons of unsalted butter over medium heat. Once the butter is melted, add flour, whisking constantly. Cook one additional minute. Turn down heat to medium low. Continuing to whisk, slowly add the warm milk & cream mixture, whisking out lumps as they appear. Add the salt, pepper, dry mustard, smoked paprika and worcestershire sauce. Cook for an additional 5 minutes.

4. A third at a time, use a wooden spoon to gently stir in grated cheeses. Allow to melt for about 1-2 minutes in between each addition. When all the cheese has been added and sauce is mostly smooth, add macaroni and stir to combine. When combined, smooth the top with the spoon.

5. Combine remaining 2 1/2 tablespoons melted butter with panko breadcrumbs. Sprinkle the breadcrumb mixture over the top of the macaroni & cheese and top with crumbled bacon. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until breadcrumbs are nicely browned.

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of The Two Gentlemen of Altona from the publisher for review purposes. The other two books in the series were purchased by me.

Monday, March 16, 2015

In Bed With Her Italian Boss Family Tomato Sauce

In Bed with Her Italian Boss by Kate Hardy, a Harlequin Presents that seems to have started life as a Mills & Boon called Breakfast at Giovanni's, wasn't what I would have expected given that title. That title conjures visions of a dubiously-appropriate workplace romance with a hot-blooded man. This book is not that. Not at all. Rather, it's a story of two people trying to find their way when their careers take unexpected turns, with a side order of fond family interactions.

Francesca has been a customer at Giovanni's coffeehouse for a while before she loses her job due to downsizing after a merger. And while Giovanni, the owner of the coffeehouse, has noticed her, she hasn't ever really noticed him. So when he brings her a consoling treat and they get to talking, she doesn't realize right away that he's the owner. But they talk about her previous job and her skills and he offers her an office management position at his small, but growing chain. And if it just so happens that they've got a little bit of chemistry, well, that's okay because they're not going to act on it.

Of course, they do act on it. But not until after Francesca has been persuaded to be Giovanni's fake girlfriend in addition to being his office manager, a set up that should have sent me running for the hills, but worked because pretty much everything else in this book is so spectacularly plausible and normal. The characters, the setting, the business details, and the coworker and family relationships all formed a steady foundation for this otherwise precarious plot. Both characters have emotional limitations that keep them apart even while circumstance keeps pushing them together. And at every step, their internal conflicts seemed genuine.

Giovanni is a perfect example of where romance's alpha and beta hero distinctions break down. Here's a hero who is good at his job, loves his family, plays classical guitar and feels all the feels right from the beginning of the novel. He rides in on his white horse (er, cargo van), gives the heroine a shot at a new career and helps out when her apartment gets flooded. And get this: he does it without being dictatorial or condescending. He just acts like a real friend would. Um, a tall, olive-skinned, dreamboat of a real friend, but who doesn't have those? (Okay, none of us have those, but that's part of why romance is fun.)

And Francesca is equally grounded and sensible. She is sad when she's is downsized. She gets angry and frustrated with Giovanni when he's being obtuse. She takes time to make decisions, handles her work challenges like a professional and doesn't go to pieces except right at the end when a lack of communication puts the breaks on the romance. However, because the entire story is about two people learning to work together, like each other, trust each other and eventually love each other, that breakdown in understanding didn't feel forced like it sometimes can in romance. There are no distractions in the form of lecherous villains or evil competitors. There's no murder plot, dying family member or other dramatic, trauma-inducing situation to keep the plot moving.

In Bed With Her Italian Boss is just a couple of people fumbling their way through life and landing safely in each other's laps. And how nice is that?

Today's recipe makes me happy. So happy that I've been waiting about 10 months for the right book to share it.

Only about a quarter of my family has any real family recipes. My grandmother on my mother's side wasn't much of a cook. Everyone got fed, but she was very much an upper middle-class 1960s housewife with said's attendant culinary expectations. Think more Jello salad than Julia Child. Don't get me wrong, it has its charms, but in general, that's not how I cook.

My father's side is a different story. They're Sicilian, nearly straight off the boat. So this is very much not a Northern Italian or Italian-American recipe. There is no ground beef or sausage or any meat at all. Probably because my great-grandmother was one of those people who, when you showed up, would ask if you were hungry. And no matter the answer, you'd better have been prepared to eat at least a three-course meal consisting of salad, pasta and main course. Yes, there was a pasta course and a main course. Both.

Are you getting a sense of why I now attempt to feed strangers via the internet?

There are some aspects of this recipe that are downright weird. Why add dried Italian seasoning and dried oregano when there is already fresh basil and fresh oregano and basil pesto? Why whole tomatoes and tomato sauce? What's up with the sugar? Why does the water have to be boiling? Here's my brilliant, insightful, educated answer: I've got no freaking idea.

I could say something about layers of flavors or suchlike, but I suspect that what's really going on here is necessity as the mother of invention and the crafting, over many, many years, of a fool-proof recipe. My family wasn't exactly poor. Certainly no more or less so than anyone else in their neighborhood. But they were working class and probably the recipe turned out like this because sometimes there were fresh herbs and sometimes dried ones. Sometimes there was pesto and sometimes there wasn't. The sugar probably has something to do with counteracting the tomato's acidity, but then, why use the baking soda too? And why at three different stages of the cooking process? Really. No idea. But the overall result is that if you don't have fresh herbs handy or if you forget to add the first pinch of baking soda, don't fret! It will all work out.

As grandma would say, "Mangia!"

Family Tomato Sauce
Difficulty: Easy
Makes: A metric ton (freezes well)
Time: 4 hours, 30 minutes (hands-on time: 30 minutes)

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1 shallot, minced
4-6 cloves of garlic, minced
6 springs of parsley, de-stemmed and chopped
3 springs basil, de-stemmed and chopped
3 springs oregano, de-stemmed and chopped
1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons prepared basil pesto
1 heaping teaspoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, undrained
2 15-ounce cans tomato sauce
2 cups boiling water
2 pinches baking soda, divided
Parmesan and additional parsley for garnish (optional)

1. In a large pan, heat olive oil over medium heat until shimmering and fragrant. Add onion and cook for 6-8 minutes or until soft. Add shallot, garlic, pesto, and fresh and dried herbs and cook for an additional 1 minute.

2. Turn down heat to medium-low. Add whole tomatoes, tomato sauce, boiling water, sugar, salt, pepper and first pinch of baking soda. Cover and simmer for 2 hours, stirring occasionally (check to make sure the bottom doesn't burn, turning down heat if necessary).

3. Add second pinch of baking soda. It will fizz a bit, counteracting the acid in the tomatoes.

4. After 3 hours, uncover and continue to simmer one additional hour to allow the sauce to thicken up, continuing to stir occasionally.

5. Serve with your favorite pasta and garnish with Parmesan and additional parsley if desired

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Flight of Magpies Szechuan Pork Tacos

It's books like Flight of Magpies by K.J. Charles that make my heart hurt every time someone says that romance novels are dumb. Because this book, even more than the two that preceded it (and those were pretty damn good), is absolutely brilliant. And it's brilliant in, like, three separate genres, somehow doing justice to each.

For those not familiar with the series, it follows justiciar Stephen Day, a hybrid policeman-wizard, whose job it is to track down and bring to justice magical lawbreakers. His job is not high status or particularly lucrative, but he's devoted to it. What power he has is entirely magical and he's very, very good. If you're a competence porn sort of reader, you're really going to love Stephen. In the first book, The Magpie Lord, his duties throw him into the path of Lord Crane, a man with a magical problem who just happens to be the son of the man who ruined Stephen's father. Crane is powerful in a more temporal way, with physical prowess, political clout and immense personal charm. Over the course of three books, they are drawn together and pulled apart by duty, circumstances, bad guys, wanderlust and a society that doesn't approve of their love, to put it mildly. Flight of Magpies is the culmination of all these conflicts and it is packed full of wickedly hot sex, heart-breaking emotional moments, fast-paced action and a sense of urgency that will make you wish you hadn't opened the book at 10 pm, all leading to such a dramatic climax that you'll be exhausted and speechless by the end. But in the best way.

Flight of Magpies is everything romance can be, wrapped up in one tidy package. It contains a story that just couldn't be told any other way. It's a gorgeous romance where two men who have quite different stations in life, quite different personalities and major conflicts between them fall in love, have fights, make up and do something amazing together. It's also a terrific fantasy, with coherent world-building, a highly logical magic system and a perfectly complex system of magical ethics. And it's accurate historical fiction, using the social mores of the time to stage the conflict.

And not only that, but each of these elements intersects so skillfully. The sex between the characters has magical effects. The historical context impacts the romance. For lovers of Victorian occultism, there are even historical magical intersections. Plus, it's so devilishly well-written by an author who doesn't feel compelled to over-explain things: it doesn't assume that readers are too stupid to read between the lines. And it doesn't have an ounce of fat. Every word, every sentence, every paragraph, every scene, every chapter serves a purpose with none of the curious looping about I've seen in too many romances with not enough conflict to carry the story.

The entire Charm of Magpies series is everything genre fiction should be, but often isn't. It's perfectly paced, engaging, hilarious, without pretension, and so finely crafted. I've pretty much used up all the adjectives in English that mean anything like "good" so I'll just say: buy it, read it, you won't regret it.

The weather is finally warming up here in Virginia and when it's warm, I start wanting tacos. Preferably with margaritas. Lots of margaritas. It happens pretty much every year. The first sign of temperatures above 60 degrees and I'm Googling the best place for tacos in Northern Virginia.


Or, you know, I could just make them myself. And I often do. I've been blogging here for a bit less than a year and there are already two taco recipes: Thai beef tacos and carne asada tacos. Today I'm adding a third.

These tacos are really easy. Basically, you brown a pork shoulder, throw it in the crockpot for eight hours, then shred, serve with a cabbage and lettuce slaw and top it all off with a drizzle of Sriracha. It's vaguely Szechuan-inspired, what with the five spice powder and sliced red chiles in the slaw, but with corn tortillas and Vietnamese Sriracha, it's nothing like authentic. Just an homage to Crane's time in China and a brief reference Charles drops at the beginning of the second book of the series, A Case of Possession.

Oh, and for those who hate multiple steps in crockpot recipes, you can totally skip the browning part and just put the shoulder in the crockpot. It won't be as tasty without the carmelization, but if you're in a rush, you can. Also, if you're not into spice, use half a thinly sliced red bell pepper instead of the hot chiles.

Now let's have tacos.

Szechuan Pork Tacos
Diffculty: Easy
Makes: 8 servings (24 tacos)
Time: 8 hours, 25 minutes (hands-on time: 25 minutes)

2 1/2 - 3 pound blade-in pork shoulder
1 1/2 teaspoons Chinese five spice powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
3 tablespoons grapeseed oil (or other high-heat oil--not olive oil)
1/2 cup low-sodium soy sauce
1/4 cup brown sugar
3 tablespoons sweet chili-garlic sauce
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ginger, minced
24 corn tortillas
Sriracha sauce (optional)

1/4 head of napa cabbage, sliced thin (about 1 1/2 cups)
1/2 Romaine lettuce heart, slice thin (about 1 1/2 cups)
2 carrots, peeled and shredded
2 Thai chile peppers, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon rice vinegar (unseasoned)
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon low-sodium soy sauce

1. Combine the five spice powder, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Rub the mixture all over the pork shoulder.

2. Heat the grapeseed oil in a large skillet over high heat until very hot, but not smoking. Sear the roast on all sides (don't forget the ends), about one minute each side. Remove to a 4 to 6 quarts crockpot. Turn down the heat on the skillet to medium-high.

3. Pour off all but one tablespoon of the oil. Cook the garlic and ginger until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Pour in the soy sauce to deglaze the pan and dump everything into the crock pot on top of the pork. Top with brown sugar and sweet chili sauce and stir everything around a little bit. Cook for 8 hours on low.

4. About 10 minutes before the roast is done, prepare the slaw. Combine the rice vinegar, honey, sesame oil and soy sauce in a large bowl. Add the cabbage, lettuce, carrots and chiles. Toss to combine.

4. When the roast is done, reserve the cooking liquid. Take the roast out of the crockpot and use two forks to shred the meat. It should fall right off the bone and shred very easily. Put it in a large bowl and combine with 4 tablespoons of the cooking liquid.

5. Serve shredded pork topped with slaw and a drizzle of Sriracha.

Monday, March 9, 2015

For My Lady's Heart Blood Orange Olive Oil Cake

Laura Kinsale never disappoints me. In For My Lady's Heart, she has written a masterpiece, not just of romance, but of universal literary merit. It's one of the most subversive works of literature I've read. Well, listened to actually. My husband and I got the audio book and played it in the car on road trips for about six months. And since I'm going to spend the rest of this review talking about myths and cake, let me just say that Nicholas Boulton's narration of this book is outstanding. Well worth acquiring, even if you've already read it. What Kinsale subverts in this book though isn't just narrative structure or genre conventions. No, she's got a much bigger target: the archetypal heroic story arc that underpins much of humanity's storytelling.

For My Lady's Heart's romantic arc begins with the hero and heroine's meet-cute across a crowded room full of priests and petitioners. The hero is instantly attracted to the beautiful, sophisticated heroine, who promptly laughs at him, then saves his ass when he gets in over his head. He pledges his life and sword to her and they go their separate ways, she with her court, he to earn his name and seek his fortune. We rejoin the couple years later when Melanthe is now the widow of a powerful Italian noble, has promised to wed yet another Italian noble, and is journeying home to England to solidify her claim to some land that her soon-to-be-betrothed wants to get his dastardly hands on. Another chance meeting brings Ruck back into her life, this time for good, and he serves as her bodyguard on the trip back north. Nothing goes as planned of course, their pasts catch up with both of them and they have to learn to either stay apart forever or work together.

For My Lady's Heart is anything but straightforward, however. Right away, both my husband and I keyed in on the fact that Ruck calls himself "The Green Knight" in lieu of a name for much of the story. Even before Kinsale hopped into a conversation I was having with Lisa Hendrix on Twitter to say that she'd been inspired by Tolkien's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the parallels were obvious. If you're not familiar though, basically, we're talking King Arthur here, which clued us into the idea that the book would follow Ruck, his mysterious identity and daring exploits. There's a whole tradition of this kind of literary behavior going back to the beginning of written story-telling. It's the "hero's journey" Joseph Campbell talks about in The Hero With A Thousand Faces: the man leaves home to seek adventure, experiences trials, hits rock bottom, transforms, rights his wrongs, reconciles with his father and emerges triumphant, returning home a hero. That's Ruck's story completely. It's also Luke Skywalker's. And Thor's in the Marvel movie. If you ever studied The Odyssey or Gilgamesh in school, you probably learned about this concept. There's a reason it's considered archetypal.

What's fascinating to me about veering off from something like the hero's journey in a romance novel though, a genre written primarily for, by, and about women, is that those stories are all about the dudes. They're the heroes. The protectors. Large and in charge, even when being buffeted by life. The women are mainly witches, connivers and adulteresses; goddesses and temptresses; Madonnas and whores. They're dramatic foils; obstacles that get in the way of the heroes' honorable impulses.

But what about the "heroine's journey"; a woman's archetypal/literary/epic/mythological path? I'm not sure there is one, at least not one that doesn't focus exclusively on fertility. It's not like most Medieval men ran off and became knights. Or that Grecian peasants were out sailing the Mediterranean for a decade or two. For high school literature students, Elizabeth Bennett might have been the first female main character encountered who was written by a woman. Before that it's all Penelope, Hester Prynne and Lady Macbeth. At least, it was at my school. And while I will never say anything negative about Austen because of course I adore her books, her world was small. The heroes in epics and myths, their worlds are not small. Melanthe's world is not small. Melanthe plays on the highest levels of the Medieval international political stage. She's skilled at diplomacy and deception, but limited in power by her gender and hampered rather than helped by her beauty, which would be the more typical role of feminine beauty in an historical romance. And most people in the story believe that she is a witch who took lovers and murdered her husband.

Outside of the maiden, the mother or the crone, there's no script for Melanthe to follow. Even though she does rather torture Ruck in his celibacy, she for sure doesn't follow the archetypal path of mythological women. She's not a goddess or a witch or a whore or a virtuous woman who stays home and waits for her husband to return triumphant. And, well, maybe that's the point. Despite what everyone would want to believe of Melanthe, how they perceive her, how they would use her or how they would change her (Ruck included), she resists. She remains her own paranoid, difficult, irascible self, refusing all aid and comfort, solving her own problems and shaping her world to suit herself. She proves not to be a witch on their trip through the marsh, not a whore in her sexual inexperience, not a mother or wife when they marry and arrive at Wolfscar, Ruck's castle, midway through the book.

Contrasted with the set path Ruck is allowed to tread, one worn into the literary bedrock over the course of centuries, Melanthe's is one of her own invention. She almost never does what either Ruck or the reader expect. Her values include her freedom, her life and perhaps the well-being of her beloved pet falcon. And whatever she has to be or do in order to preserve those things are what she does. She's rather infinitely adaptable actually, not particularly constrained by social mores, the Church or an inconveniently well-born husband despite being hyper-aware of those restrictions. Ruck is far below her in social standing and can't match her wits, except on rare occasions (and we do root for him when he stands up to her because he's so utterly outmatched most of the time). She makes her own way right to the very end. And speaking of the end, it's no one's triumph. It's an accident that delivers our heroine. Or an act of God.

For My Lady's Heart contains all this and yet, it still functions as a road trip romance. As Melanthe and Ruck journey together, sometimes together, sometimes apart, sometimes in harmony and sometimes (okay, mostly) not, their attraction to one another becomes obvious to both of them. However, Melanthe for fear of her political enemies and Ruck out of fear for his immortal soul, must resist the temptation they represent to each other. All that thwarted desire is awfully hot. We also get Kinsale's humor in hunting herons, slaying dragons, and jokes about sex and confession. The scene where Ruck and Melanthe consummate their unusual marriage and Ruck turns out to be rather a savant of sex as a result of his many, many forays into the confessional is one of the funniest things I've ever read. I went back and read the scene in the book to be sure that it wasn't only Boulton's impeccable comedic timing and it wasn't. Still funny.

I grabbed a used copy of For My Lady's Heart just so I could put it on my Very Favorite Book Ever shelf next to Flowers From the Storm and Prince of Midnight. It's just...everything.

C'est n'est pas Wolfscar.

In my head, this post was going to utilize this pan. Perhaps with a great deal of green food coloring. And probably some Dungeons & Dragons miniatures. Why? Well, how often do you get to use a bundt pan in the shape of a castle? And there are, like, four castles in this book. I mean, really.

But then I realized that there actually is food in For My Lady's Heart. In fact, there's kind of a whole thing about oranges and almonds. Melanthe's decision to share her treats with Ruck represents a shift for her in terms of both how she thinks of him and how she thinks of herself. For the first time, she's laid bare. And he's not sure what to make of that at all.

As for this cake, it's a little bit fussy, but if you follow the instructions exactly, it should work out fine. The first time I tried making the original recipe for a friend who's dairy free, I was too fast and loose with the process and it didn't rise properly. I don't specifically recall what I did, but I'm guessing I probably oiled the sides of the pan. Don't do that. This is sort of a chiffon-type cake and it needs to be able to cling to the sides to rise.

So anyway, when I modified the recipe for this post, I was extra special careful and it turned out fine. I'd't fiddle with this one. If you don't have the precise right ingredients (blood oranges are rapidly going out of season and dried orange peel may require a trip to a specialty spice shop) and tools (you'll need a 9-inch spring form pan and parchment paper), make something else or go shopping first. Cool? Cool.

For more photos of this cake, visit Cooking Up Romance on Facebook. I often stash extra photos there so you can see what each step of the process is supposed to look like.

Blood Orange Olive Oil Cake
adapted from epicurious
Makes: 12 servings
Time: 2 1/2 hours (hands-on: 45 minutes)
Difficulty: Advanced

3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for pan
2 blood oranges, zested (1 1/2 tablespoons zest)
2 tablespoons blood orange juice
1 cup cake flour
1 teaspoon dried orange peel
5 egg yolks, 4 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Oil the bottom of a 9-inch spring form pan. Place a piece of parchment in the bottom and close the pan. Oil the parchment only (not the sides).

2. In a food processor, pulse together the blood orange zest, cake flour and dried orange peel until combined.

3. In a large bowl, beat together egg yolks and 1/2 cup of sugar with an electric mixer on high speed until thick and pale (about 3 minutes). Add 3/4 cup of olive oil and 2 tablespoons of blood orange juice. Mix until combined. Stir in the flour mixture (by hand--do not use mixer).

4. Wash the electric mixer beaters thoroughly. In another large bowl, beat egg whites until foamy. Add 1/4 cup of sugar a little at a time until sugar is incorporated and egg whites form soft peaks.

5. Gently fold 1/3 of the egg whites into the egg yolk and flour mixture to lighten it, then fold in remaining egg whites carefully, but thoroughly.

6. Pour batter into prepared pan and gently tap to release air bubbles. Sprinkle with remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons of sugar. Bake until puffed and golden, 35-45 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

7. Cool the cake on a rack for 10 minutes, then run a knife around the edge of the cake and remove the side of pan. Cool cake to room temperature, about 1 1/4 hours. Remove the bottom of the pan, peel off parchment and serve.

Disclosure: Laura Kinsale and I follow each other on Twitter and engage in occasional conversation.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Guilty Pleasure Mushroom Risotto

Jane O'Reilly has been a favorite of mine since picking up her Indecent... trilogy last year. She's got a completely matter of fact feminism and sex-positivity to her books that appeals to me on a visceral level even if the particular kink or sexual dynamic she's exploring isn't one I'm especially interested in. The Pleasure Principle, the book that the mushroom risotto comes from, was one of those books. Guilty Pleasure, which is the first book in this linked set (though they can definitely be read as stand-alones because I accidentally read them out of order) held more personal appeal, but both books were quick, sexy, satisfying erotic romance reads.

The heroine of The Pleasure Principle has just been reviewed on a Rate My Date type site by her ex-boyfriend, who gave her two stars in bed. She's understandably rather upset by this and it has damaged her already fragile confidence. It's true that she's sexually rather inexperienced, she's never had an orgasm with a partner and barely ever has them by herself, but she hadn't thought it mattered much as long as he was satisfied. Luckily hero Cal comes along and invites Verity to a sex party. That probably sounds a little absurd, but he's a colleague of hers and the way O'Reilly sets it up, it works. Cal is very much concerned about Verity's pleasure and sets about figuring out how to unstick her. This could have been patronizing and awful, but instead it comes off as only a little bit overbearing, if endearingly so. The romantic arc is fast, but I wasn't bothered by it because they already knew each other. With their explosive connection and design industry jobs in common, I didn't have any trouble believing in their happy ending.

Guilty Pleasure also brings together two coworkers, Tasha and Ethan, rival architects at the same firm. Tasha works harder than any of the male architects to stay in the same place and, to be honest, it's stressing her out. So much so that she allows herself a little indulgence at the end of every work day--masturbating at her desk. The idea of possibly getting caught is a huge turn-on for her. And when she eventually does get caught, it's by Ethan. A scene ensues the next day involving her giving him a blowjob that could have been manipulative and creepy, but the sly way it was written made it instead titillating and erotic. It's clear that Tasha is enjoying herself despite that she finds it slightly outrageous and slightly dirty (in a good way). Their romance ramps up quickly, spending a weekend together engaged in various semi-public sex acts. But when they head back to work, Tasha has a negative interaction with a client that I mention for folks with workplace sexual harassment triggers. It all works out in the end though, leaving both Tasha and Ethan better off both personally and professionally.

Guilty Pleasure edged out The Pleasure Principle for me, sexually repressed heroines not being a particular favorite of mine. However, both books worked for me for the same reason Ava Lovelace/Delilah Dawson's erotic romance works for me. Sometimes it's just nice to know that no matter what awful, dangerous, sexist situation an author gets her characters into, she's always going to get them out. There is no ambiguity here, only straight-forward, woman-centric sex acceptance. I love it.

In The Pleasure Principle, Cal takes Verity out to dinner and they basically torture each other with teasing the whole meal. Verity orders this mushroom risotto. Mushroom risotto is always one of those things I want to like better than I do. Mushrooms cooked in with the rice just don't absorb very much flavor, leading to chewy bits of texture that are generally fairly underwhelming. Like tofu, mushrooms are excellent at absorbing whatever flavors they're cooked in though, hence the slightly deconstructed nature of this dish.

Risotto is perfect for the cold temperatures we've been having in the Mid-Atlantic this winter. It's warm and filling and you get to stand in front of the hot stove for 20 minutes while you stir it. I use the America's Test Kitchen method though, which isn't as bad as traditional risotto for hands-on time. As it turns out, you can let the first round of chicken stock absorb on its own while you stand in the kitchen and read (or tweet, which is what I usually do). Or you could make the mushroom topping. It all depends on how comfortable you are with kitchen multitasking. Then you just have to stir for the last 10 minutes.

Finally, I used to make risotto only for company because it doesn't really reheat very well. But that was before I discovered risotto cakes. With some mozzarella, bread crumbs and oil, you can make leftover risotto actually palatable instead of just gluey. You could also stuff them with mozzarella and some of the mushrooms for a fun little surprise. At this point I think I mostly make risotto so I can have the leftovers as risotto cakes the next day. They're that good.

When was the last time you were excited to eat leftovers?

Mushroom Risotto 
Makes: 6 servings
Time: 45 minutes

3 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock for vegetarians)
3 cups water
1 medium onion, diced
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups short grain rice (Arborio preferred)
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated + more for garnish
1 teaspoon sea salt (or more to taste)

1 1/4 pound mushrooms, diced (I used cremini, but even regular button mushrooms would be fine)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon Herbes de Provence
1 teaspoon sea salt (or more to taste)
1/4 teaspoon black pepper (or more to taste)
1/2 cup dry red wine

1. Heat chicken stock and water in a medium saucepan over low heat until warm.

2. In a large pot, melt 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter over medium-high heat and add onion. Cook until lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Add rice and cook until ends are slightly translucent, about 2-3 minutes. Add wine and stir until it is absorbed, about 2 minutes.

3. Turn the heat down to medium and add 3 cups of warm chicken stock and water mixture and stir to combine. Allow to cook for 10-12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until liquid is absorbed.

4. While the rice is cooking, melt an additional 2 tablespoons of butter with 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add garlic, Herbes de Provence, salt and pepper and cook for about 30 seconds. Add chopped mushrooms and cook until they start to give off liquid, about 5 minutes. Add red wine and cook until wine is mostly absorbed, about 15 minutes.

5. Once the liquid in the rice is absorbed, add the rest of the chicken stock and water mixture half a cup at a time, stirring constantly, until the rice is cooked, about 10 more minutes. Add grated Parmesan cheese.

6. Serve risotto with mushrooms on top plus a few Parmesan cheese shavings, if desired.
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