Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Living in Secret Lamb Tagine

Living in Secret is the third book of Jackie Ashenden's Living In series. Typical of Ashenden, the emotional intensity is off-the-charts. But what I love about her books is that it isn't ever just angst for angst's sake. She's not afraid to give her characters serious problems and genuine personality flaws. Her heroines aren't just a little clumsy. Her heroes aren't still mourning the girl who broke up with them in college (or, maybe they are but that's generally the least of their problems). Her characters navigate difficulties like addiction and abuse.

In Living in Secret, Connor and Victoria are still married, barely. They've been separated for over a year, the result of distance created by not ever being completely honest with one another. They're each keeping a big secret that has allowed them the emotional distance they need to cope with life, but unfortunately also took a toll on their marriage.

This distance has also manifested in their sex life, which has been active, but hardly passionate. They need a dramatic break-through and one is provided via a friend of the previous book's hero: a threesome resets Connor and Victoria's expectations and opens the door to a week's worth of uninhibited sexual exploration. The physical intimacy the characters experience also breaks down their emotional barriers and eventually brings them back together.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the cleansing power of confession in romance and in life as it relates to this book so I don't need to go into all that again in detail here, but this is a powerfully redemptive story and will be a satisfying read for any fan of the marriage-in-trouble trope. And I'm not giving anything away when I say that any lover of erotic romance will also find lots of things to love about Living in Secret. It's crazy hot. I've been a fan of Ashenden for  while, but she has really come into her own with this series. Every book has been everything I love about how romance can be. I can only hope Connor and Victoria's threesome partner in this book eventually gets one of his own. Though he seems curiously well-adjusted for an Ashenden hero. Maybe we'll get to see something new from her? Or maybe he has secrets of his own... I hope we get to find out.

I've had a long-running less-than-serious gripe about Jackie Ashenden's books. She doesn't feed her characters. Like, ever. Oh, she'll let them order food. Or go in search of food. Or pull food out of the fridge. But before they have a chance to eat it, they always fight. Or have sex. Or have sex and then fight. It's a thing.

So when Connor and Victoria actually sit down at a table and eat lamb tagine, I knew it would be an important moment. And whoo boy. It was a doozie. I'm not giving spoilers because it's a relatively new book, but, yeah. It's crucial. And it happens over food. I was pretty excited.

I love making up recipes, tweaking food until it's just perfect. But sometimes it's nice to just cook.

I'd never made anything like this lamb tagine before so I pulled up a recipe online and just made that using a leg of lamb I had my butcher carve off the bone and cut into chunks for me. Having a real butcher nearby is great. Not only was he willing to do a little bit of the prep work, he also used a bone saw to cut the bone in half. I then boiled it and made lamb stock for my freezer.

I think if I made this recipe again, I'd tweak it a little, mainly because the long cooking time mellows out the flavors more than seemed appropriate. I'd jack up the cayenne for sure. And maybe try it out in the crockpot instead of marinating it overnight. If I do, I'll add a note here in the future.

But, like I said, sometimes it's nice to just cook.

Lamb tagine from All Recipes.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Guest Post, Disclosure and Carmelized Onion & Brie Pizza

Alexis Hall, Dabney Grinnan and I are at All About Romance today with a glowing review of Against the Dark by Carolyn Crane. I can't believe it took me so long to read one of her books, particularly after last year's RITA win. I already started the second one, but got sidetracked by other commitments. I can't wait to get back to it! There was also carmelized onion and brie pizza in this book that I just HAD to try out so I'm giving readers a bonus recipe today too so just scroll down for that. And head over to All About Romance for the review.

As long as I'm here though, I wanted to say a few things about trust and relationships and make sure that I'm being as transparent as I can be. It shouldn't be any kind of secret by now that Alexis and I are friends who chat pretty often since we review together once a month, but I have plenty of relationships like that with other authors too. All those relationships are disclosed in the body of review posts as I don't avoid my friends' books. I've talked about this before so I hope that's not news. In many cases, I became friendly with authors after reviewing a book of theirs for the first time so the first post about an author might not have that sort of disclosure.

It's a peculiarity of reviewing the way I do (a creative interpretation of another creative's work) that these relationships typically develop unbidden and I've not seen a reason to resist them. But it means that my blog has never been and will never be a "reader's haven" in the same way other review blogs are. If you're looking for that, Wendy the Super Librarian, Miss Bates Reads Romance, Immersed in Books and Feminist Fairytale Reviews are a few of my personal favorites.

In addition to maintaining friendly relationships with a pretty wide range of authors, editors and other reviewers via Twitter and email, I also do a fair bit of beta reading, which I also disclose when I review those authors. Sometimes my involvement is slight (proofing a food-related scene), sometimes it's more extensive (reviewing a manuscript at several points pre-publication). I will always say I beta-read the book in these cases, or if I have beta-read for the author in the past. I really genuinely love helping my friends with their books--it's one of the unexpected joys of having come to romance reviewing--so I don't ever want to give that up.

Finally, as far as my own ambitions are concerned, I have no plans to write romance fiction. That said, and I'm guessing this won't be a surprise to many given how many times I've been asked if I'd ever write a romance-related cookbook one day, I would like to write a cookbook. Someday. And I have no idea yet what shape that might take. If I ever do, it will be under the name Elisabeth Lane, which is a pen name and the only name under which I have ever written and ever will write anything remotely related to the romance genre. I've never been careful about privacy under my given name and when I started reviewing, I thought it best not to be quite so obviously easy to find, hence the pen name. If I ever change my mind and start publishing anything romance-related under my given name or any other pen name, I will disclose it.

Sorry for the serious turn, but I thought it was important to make sure all that was out in the open in the wake of the events of the last few weeks. So let's get to cooking without further delay!

This recipe definitely falls under the heading of "not pretty, but sooo delicious". I mean, just look at those lumps of brie! My husband assures me that artisan pizzas pretty much all look like this now and I know he's right--globs of real mozzarella, ricotta, etc.--but I can't help but wish it were just a little less beige. It's alright though. The flavor more than makes up for the humble visual.

Have we talked about pizza dough? I'm not sure we have. But when carmelized onion & brie pizza popped up in Carolyn Crane's Against the Dark, I just knew I had to try it out. I make homemade pizza about once a week. I mix up a huge batch of dough once every month or two and freeze each lump individually wrapped in plastic wrap and put all together in a freezer bag. It works pretty well and I always have pizza dough for a quick weeknight meal.

This recipe is a bit more time-intensive than my normal weeknight pizzas just because I'm aware of no way to speed up the process of carmelizing onions. It takes 30-40 minutes no matter what you do. That lovely caramel-sweet flavor just takes a while to develop. I use Julia Child's method of carmelizing onions, which I'll describe below. If you don't have a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I'm not really sure what to say you besides, "Get one."

I served this pizza with a pile of argula in a super simple dressing of oil & champagne vinegar with honey and a tiny bit of salt of salt and pepper. Oh, basically this recipe from my review of the Ruthie Knox book Truly. The brie makes this pizza quite filling so the light salad was plenty adequate as a side.

I don't suppose I need to make a case for the pizza, but I will. The slow-cooked onions and creamy brie with an underlying hint of Herbes de Provence was completely delectable, as I suspected it would be. Piling the arugula on top of a pizza slice was a pretty darn good move too. You should probably only make this for someone you really like a lot.

Carmelized Onion & Brie Pizza
Makes: 2-3 servings
Time: 1 hour
Difficult: Intermediate

12-14 ounces fresh-made, frozen or store-bought pizza dough
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon Herbes de Provence
4 medium onions, sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon white sugar
a few grinds of black pepper
1/2 pound medium-intense brie, rind removed and cut into chunks

1. Make pizza dough or use store-bought. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Stretch out pizza dough and put it on pizza pan sprayed with cooking spray to prevent sticking. Baste crust with 1 teaspoon olive oil and scatter Herbs de Provence over the crust. Pre-bake for 9 minutes, then remove and allow to cool while you make the onions.

2. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil and 3 tablespoons unsalted butter to a large skillet with a lid. Heat over medium heat until butter is melted, then add sliced onions and cover. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Remove the cover and set aside. Add 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon sugar (to promote browning) and black pepper. Turn down the heat to medium-low and cook for 20-30 minutes, stirring frequently, until onions are thoroughly carmelized.

3. When the onions are done, spread them evenly over the pre-baked crust. Add chunks of brie on top and return to the oven for 7-8 minutes. When the crust is nearly brown, put the pizza under the broiler for a minute or 2 until the brie is lightly browned on top. Allow to rest until cheese stops bubbling, then slice and serve.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Bride and The Beast Candied Bacon Salted Oatmeal Cookies

Gwendolyn Wilder loved Bernard MacCullough from afar as a girl. But when the English raid his father's Castle for harboring the Scottish pretender, the young would-be laird is killed. Or so she thought. And when a dragon comes to claim the ruined castle, the villagers send the only virgin left in Ballybliss to slake The Dragon's hunger.

The Bride and the Beast by Teresa Medeiros is one of those books that despite some issues, I really loved. It doesn't hurt that beauty and the beast is pretty much my favorite trope, or that the dialogue is witty and hilarious or that it has all the charm of old skool kidnapping romance without any of the problematic consent issues. Less good are a difficult relationship with female sexuality and a healthy helping of fat-shaming. But even those downsides are mild and ameliorated by the book's charm, fairy tale framing and 14-year-old publication date.
It's a fascinating book for sure. It was published in 2001 and seems to fall somewhere between the slightly uncomfortable for a contemporary reader 1990s Highland romances and today's carefully feminist historicals. There's a ton of subtext here for lovers of romance and fairy tales, some of which I agree with and some of which I don't. The heroine is pretty judgmental of her pretty, selfish, sexualized sisters. She slut-shames the youngest one for having sex outside of marriage. And the oldest, who has had several marriages, still isn't good enough because it appears that she married for material considerations rather than for love. If we forgive Gwen for her judgment, it's because her sisters are generally pretty terrible to her, which fits within the fairy tale aspect of the story.

Then there's the fact that Gwen muses fairly consistently on how sad and terrible it is that she's fat. She does get a bit of a makeover via some lovely dresses, but she never loses the weight and is even shown doing some emotional eating. It's a realistic portrayal of many women's complex relationships with their bodies. Gwen has clearly internalized a negative perception of her eating habits and fuller figure. But a lot of this bad messaging and internal script comes from her not-quite-evil, but not nice either sisters. And both her sexual desires and her shape ARE validated by the hero, which is a good thing. But the (likely unintended) message seems to be that if a man says it's okay, then it's really okay. But ONLY if a man thinks so.

In a current romance, I might have been less forgiving than I was with this one. The problem is that it's just so darn charming. The heroine is abused by herself and her sisters, but not by the hero. He wars with his desire the same as she does. And his thirst for revenge makes for a creative take on the beast archetype. The reason I mention the publication date is that in the mid-1990s I read an awful lot of romance featuring semi-barbaric Highlanders. Those heroines were generally kidnapped English mewling misses (with the requisite flashing eyes) who tame their savage beasts. And I had resigned myself to that being the narrative in this book. After all, that arc's still somewhat nostalgic fun, even if I've kinda grown out of it. But that's not what happens. Or well, it is, but it's not as heavy-handed, sexual or physical as what I remembered from this sort of story. The hero might be a beast, but he's a beast primarily concerned with the heroine's comfort, confidence and pleasure. Where he's most beastly is in his dealings with the admittedly not very likeable villagers who were complicit in his father's death. It makes for a much more subtle transformation.

The thing is, despite the issues, this book really worked for me. While some of the details weren't all I would have hoped for, my overall impression was positive. All the banter between hero and heroine and the hero and his friend is witty and clever and fast-paced. The action keeps the plot moving, but doesn't overshadow the characters' emotional journeys. It's just an interesting moment in historical romance--after pirates and barbarians and before The Dukes. If you can overlook some of its old-fashioned ideas, it's really quite a perfect historical.

I don't know how much I really need to say about these cookies. They're dense and oaty and not too sweet and full of bacon. When I posted them to Twitter, I got several requests for the recipe, which obviously didn't exist yet. And then I had to find a book for them. The book is admittedly sort of a stretch, but who cares. When the Dragon gets pissed at the villagers for sending him a virgin instead of the thousand pounds he asked for, he punishes them by sending Gwen's ridiculous list of all the food she can think of, including oatmeal.

I made these cookies one night when I was, well, craving cookies. And though I salted them, there was still something missing. Turns out that something was candied bacon.

I pretty much always bake my bacon in the oven. Weird, right? But there's no hissing, spitting bacon grease or splattered cooktop. And if I'm making it for breakfast, I can use my large skillet for pancakes or eggs instead. It just works for me. So that's what I did here, adding a little bit of maple syrup, brown sugar and cinnamon in the final few minutes.

I like cookies the size of my head (or well, my palm I suppose) so this recipe makes about a dozen and a half BIG cookies, which is good because these don't keep. I'd make them for a crowd or a potluck or some time when they'll all get eaten within a day or two. After that they'll get chewy and stale.

I suspect it won't be a problem though. They're pretty delicious.

Candied Bacon Salted Oatmeal Cookies
Makes: 18 large cookies
Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes (30 minutes hands-on time)
Difficulty: Easy

6 slices thick-cut or country bacon
1 tablespoon maple syrup
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, divided
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon course sea salt
16 tablespoons butter (2 sticks), softened
1 cup light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon reserved bacon grease
2 large eggs
3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats (not the quick cooking kind and DEFINITELY not instant)

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Lay out 6 slices of bacon on a cookie tray covered in aluminum foil. Bake for 10 minutes and flip. Bake and additional 5 minutes and check for crispness.

2. In the meantime, mix 1 tablespoon of maple syrup, 2 tablespoons brown sugar and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon in a small mixing bowl until combined. When the bacon is almost done, drain off bacon grease and reserve. Brush the mixture over one side, flip and brush over the other side. Continue to bake for 3 minutes, making sure not to scorch the sugar.

3. In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, sea salt and remaining 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon.

4. In the a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the butter, sugar, brown sugar and 1 tablespoon of the reserved bacon grease. Add eggs one at a time, mixing to combine after each addition. Add flour mixture and and mix until almost combined. Add oats [and crumbled bacon] and mix.

5. On three cookie trays covered with parchment paper, scoop out dough into balls approximately 1 1/2 inches to 2 inches across. Refrigerate trays for 15 minutes.

6. Bake for 22-25 minutes until golden on the edges and set in the middle, rotating and switching halfway through baking. Allow to cook on trays for 10 minutes, then move to wire racks to cool completely.

7. Consume immediately. Recommend refrigeration for any leftovers to be extra cautious. These do have meat in them, after all.

[edited to add: when to add the bacon in step 4--thanks to commenter Kelly for catching that missing instruction!]
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