Friday, February 28, 2014

Crockpot, Teach Me Your Ways

Here I go again with another crockpot recipe. I've tried several and I always end up with a unicolored stew; it tastes alright the first night but once it goes in a Tupperware the party is over. Some of my past failures have been:
Image courtesy of flickr

Black beans and rice
Cheese and ale soup
Pot roast


But this time is going to be different, I say as I go to the store, load up on unlikely ingredients and cast them all into my cauldron. Maybe that's the problem - probably I need to dress up as Hermione and find Bezoars and junk like that. Or I need to Snape to oversee the process. Yes, that's it; I need Snape as a sort of magical Gordon Ramsey to yell at me while I brown the meats. 

Because, you see, I love the idea of crockpots. Everything goes in, like the Sneetches, to the pot around 9 am. Six hours later, the house smells heavenly and Accio Dinner. Take that, Polar Vortex!

Not how it turns out, however. The Feijoada was a pain to put together, and during the process there was a strange smell as the ingredients combined. With enough wine we were able to eat the stuff, but the leftovers (and there were plenty) went into the trash.

No, my crockpot is more of a warming device than a cooking device, as anyone who has had my sausage and peppers can tell you. Roast those sausages, sauté the onions and peppers, and throw it all in with plenty of EVOO and Frank's Hot Sauce. Add rolls from a real Italian bakery and some football = culinary heaven.
Image courtesy of flickr

But see, that's not really cooking. It's more cut and paste or combining some ingredients. I want to have casseroles! Soups! Other warm stuff I can't think of right now!

Okay, I'm going to try it again this weekend with this chicken recipe, courtesy of I like it because it's all fresh ingredients without processed stuff. Cross your fingers it makes it past the Tupperware stage.

Chicken and Broccoli Casserole Recipe, Slow Cooker

 This chicken and broccoli casserole is easy to prepare and cook in the slow cooker. A homemade creamy sauce completes this tasty casserole. It makes a terrific meal with rice or noodles.
Yield: Serves 4 to 6
· 4 c. cubed cooked chicken or turkey
· 1 (4 oz.) can sliced mushrooms, drained, or use fresh mushrooms
· 1 (5 oz.) can sliced water chestnuts (I'm going to leave those out, but that's just me.)
· 1 (10 to 12 oz.) pkg. frozen chopped broccoli, about 1 1/2 to 2 cups
· 1/2 cup chopped onion
· 1 cup Sauce (below)
· Paprika
· .
· Sauce:
· 1/4 c. butter
· 1/4 c. flour
· 1/2 tsp. salt
· 1/4 tsp. pepper
· 1 c. chicken broth
· 1/2 cup evaporated milk
· 2 tbsp. cooking sherry
Spread half the chicken in the slow cooker or Crock Pot. Top with the mushrooms, water chestnuts, onion and broccoli. Arrange remaining chicken on top. Cover with sauce (directions below). Sprinkle with paprika. Cover and cook on low for 4 to 6 hours or high for 2 to 3 hours, or until chicken is thoroughly cooked.
Sauce Instructions: Melt butter in medium saucepan over low heat. Blend in flour, salt, and pepper. Cook over low heat, stirring until mixture is smooth and bubbly. Remove from heat. Stir in broth and milk. Heat to boiling, stirring constantly. Boil and stir 1 minute. Remove from heat; stir in wine. Makes about 2 cups.

I'll let you know how this turns out; meanwhile, if any lovely readers have great crockpot recipes to share, please let me know and I'll put them up as well. 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Cinder by Marissa Meyers - Review

I finished Cinder last night with a bit of regret. The first thing you should know is it's the start of The Lunar Series, and it ends on a cliffhanger, so be prepared to find Scarlet (the second book) straight away. Don't languish, as I have done for the past twelve hours, wondering what happened to Cinder until I got the second book.

Yes, this is another retelling of a fairytale, but it's clever and scifi, with cyborgs and gritty future urban fantasy (let's just pretend, for the sake of this review, that is a thing.) In fact, Cinder herself is a cyborg and a mechanic...

Stop right there. A Cinderella story about a cyborg-mechanic? Say no more. I'm in. 

The book begins in the middle of a marketplace. A terrible plague, Letumosis, is ravaging future Beijing, and Cinder watches as two people are struck down in front of her. Enter Prince Kai, the future emperor, with a job for a mechanic. Cinder is the one he chooses.

I'm going to stop here and say Prince Kai is awesome. He's natural, brave, and dedicated to his father and his job. He's confused, too; he doesn't see why Cinder won't accept his invitations or talk to him. For her part, she is strong and smart - and she has to hide her attraction to the prince since he doesn't actually realize she's a cyborg.

There's a beautiful antagonist in the shape of the lovely Lunar Queen, Levana. I'm a sucker for a gorgeous villainess, so I'm all about her and her glamour. Naturally she wants to suck Kai into her evil trap, so her character sets up a great deal of exciting tension.

Meanwhile, Cinder has problems of her own. Her wicked stepmother wants her to earn money for her daughters (and in a nice twist, one of the stepsisters is actually nice.) She only has a robot, Iko, to turn to for help. Plus she has to get that job done for the Prince without her stepmother finding out.
Image courtesy of Flickr

Yes, there is a ball. Yes there is dancing. Yes, there is a flight of stairs and something falling off - but not a shoe. None of it is boring, however, in a Yet Another Sunday Night TV Show About Fairytales way. Meyers has created real characters and a compelling world as their showcase.

I have to repeat the warning this is the first book in a series. The writer leaves the ending very open, but luckily I waited to read it and have my mitts on that second book now, so Ha.

My rating for Cinder is a solid four stars, with a half added on for the car Cinder turns into her magic coach.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Long Secret

I see Delacorte is reissuing Louise Fitzhugh's books to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Harriet the Spy. Now, while I loved Harriet, it was Beth Ellen who really stole my heart in the relatively unknown book The Long Secret.
Beth Ellen, courtesy of Flickr

Beth Ellen appears in Harriet the Spy as a shy, pretty girl with no personality. She's a real "Mary Sue" in that book until the end when she plays a pivotal role during a class election.

But in The Long Secret, Beth Ellen is the main character, and Fitzhugh peeled back the layers of her upscale, privileged life to reveal subtle anger and damaged childhood - all while telling a mystery. Who is leaving anonymous notes all over Water Mill, Long Island?

Harriet is still there, brash and brave as ever. She and Beth Ellen are best friends for the summer, since their families both have houses there, and over the course of the season they meet the Preacher, the Jenkins Family, and Beth Ellen's real mother, Zeeney.

Because Zeeney has arrived with her new husband, Wallace, who converses only with one word - Hup! This forces Beth Ellen to reexamine her life with her grandmother, her friendship with Harriet, and confront the enormities of growing up. The scene when she gets her period for the first time is so, so, so much better than Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. (Sorry, Judy Bloom fans.)
The very issue I had, courtesy of

Furthermore, this book made me laugh out loud, which was embarrassing in a quiet reading classroom. I defy anyone to go through the chapter set in the country club as Harriet spies on Zeeney and Beth Ellen without a chuckle. However, the scene is quietly sad, as well, as Beth Ellen limply puts up with everything her mother does - until Harriet's own wonderful mother steps in.

And the setting truly came to life for me. If you've read my blog before you'll know I love maps, and The Long Secret comes through with a fantastic map of Water Mill. I can just picture the gas station where the girls go to fill their bike tires with air before they buy cookies and head to the beach.

I've only scratched the surface here. You can still find images like Mother Jenkins wearing the same black dress as clothing and bathing suit, making toe medicine from watermelons, and - of course - tomato sandwiches. Janey's visit is superb. So is the Preacher himself. They are all detailed with the usual brilliantly scratchy illustrations.

But shining bright throughout the book is Beth Ellen (Mouse) herself, finding a voice during one Long summer.

Do yourself a favor and find this book.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Book Thief and Tortilla Soup

It was a weeknight in January. Sloppy, bone-chilling, icy rain poured over my car as I dropped off my daughter and headed out to the stores to run some errands.

Those done, I realized I was starving, there was no time to drive home for food, and I didn't fancy sitting in a restaurant by myself looking at the walls as I ate slop. A book would solve the problem - I dashed into Barnes and Noble and grabbed the first interesting book I saw.

It was The Book Thief.

With my new book in my hot little hands, I drove to Chick Fil A and order a bowl of their chicken tortilla soup. Icy drops beat against the windows as I began to read and eat my soup, which was delicious, but more on that below.

Just last night, a month later, I finished The Book Thief. I read it slowly, wanting to taste each sentence the way I savored that soup: indulge in the spice, the warmth, and the sadness of the story. However, Thief is not all angst and terror - I've written a post on the greatest books I'll never read again because they are so sad, and Thief doesn't fit that category. 

Because it shines with humanity and the tiny joys people find even in the worst circumstances. The concepts took my breath away, especially the idea of painting over the pages of Mein Kampf and rewriting the book with the thoughts of a Jewish refugee hiding in a cellar. Those pages are reproduced in the book, and you see the words of Mein Kampf trying to bleed through - painted over with new creation, never to be forgotten.

But I'm getting away from the real point of the story. Liesel, the main character, is so real and human I'm afraid to watch the film now. She's become a living persona - tough, athletic, determined to learn to read from the books she steals. Max, the Jewish refugee in the cellar is alive too. So is Papa, Liesel's adoptive father, with his cigarettes and accordion - he is real too, as is his wife - that 'wardobe' of a woman.

And Rudy, her neighbor and friend, who spends their years together trying to get a kiss. Their story is tender and breathless - but real, too. Rudy and Liesel are real German kids, trying to process what the hell is going on around them as the world descends into chaos - not in a poetic, lyrical way, but in a tough kid, bloody your nose, 'I'm going to call myself Jesse Owens' kind of way. 

I really loved them.

The book is set in a German village, told from the point of view of Death. It's another amazing concept and perfectly detailed. Death must collect the souls as bombs are dropped, people starve in concentration camps, and soldiers are blown up. It's the perfect voice for the story - calm, passionless, but quite as tender as Liesel and Rudy's friendship.

Did I mention the writing is incredible and a constant surprise? Because it is. Zusak is a true wordsmith.

When I reached the end of the book last night, I knew I'd read Thief again. It's too glorious not to - unlike the other amazing, heart-chilling books in my post (I'm looking at you, The Road) there is a constant warmth which made me hope for... I'm not quite sure. That people would read this and just think about it? That Liesel would finally allow Rudy to have that kiss?

It went perfectly with the icy hands on the windows, but The Book Thief would be wonderful in the sun as well, when spring finally does relent.

Now for the soup. 

The chicken tortilla soup at Chick Fil A is amazing - spicy, warm, and as I ate it with some of those little crunchy tortilla strips on top, I thought Death had collected me instead of Leisel's brother. In fact, it was so good I had to make it myself. More snow was about to roll into New Jersey, so I made a double batch and froze half.
Image courtesy of Flickr; labeled for noncommercial reuse

Yeah, that's NOT the way to go. The beans in the second half redoubled their fury during the freeze, to the point my husband cried for mercy, even after using Beano. We renamed it and it became part of our venacular: "Hey, hon, want some more Fart Soup?"

But the first go-round was fine, and Beano did the trick of making us less musical. 

I combined several recipes to create the soup; one was from The Pioneer Woman and one from the Less Than Perfect Life of Bliss blog. Here is the result:

"Tastes Like Chick-Fil-a's" Chicken Tortilla Soup

Olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
4-oz can diced green chilies
1 taco seasoning packet (use hot or mild depending on your preference, or create your own)
(4) 14 oz cans chicken broth
(1) 15 oz can black beans
(3) 15 oz cans navy beans
(1) 15 oz can corn
4-5 chicken breasts
1 cup heavy cream (I used half and half and it was fine.)
corn tortillas, sliced into thin strips
BEANO - trust me on this.

Preheat oven to 375. Place chicken on heavy pyrex and drizzle with olive oil; sprinkle with taco mix (You can make your own from or The Pioneer Woman and make it as spicy as you like.) Turn chicken over and repeat; bake 20 - 25 minutes or until chicken is done. 

(I made extra and turned it into chicken salad the next day - this whole section is from The Pioneer Woman.)

Allow chicken to cool slightly and shred.

Heat the olive oil in a large pot, add the onions, and cook until translucent.  Next, add the green chilies, more taco seasoning to taste, all the canned items, and the chicken.  Bring to a boil, then allow to simmer for several minutes until heated through.  Lastly, add the cream and heat for 5-10 more minutes.  

While it's cooking, create the tortilla strip crunchies for the top: Slice them up (I used kitchen scissors and cut up those babies.) Heat a little olive oil in a frying pan - a castiron pan is perfect. Stir in the strips and allow to brown on both sides - keep shaking the pan and turning them over.

When they are brown, remove onto paper towels. Anthony on suggests putting a few towels on a paper grocery bag to drain fat from fried or sauteed foods, and it works perfectly. 

Once the soup is done, top it with sour cream, grated cheese, avocado, and those tortilla strips, or any combination thereof. I'm a purist - I just want my strips and naught else.

But do NOT, whatever you do, freeze the leftovers or you will regret it.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Scrawling, by Jonathan Gould

If you have never read anything by Jonathan Gould, you are in for a treat - he writes about playful subjects in a very adult way with a unique Aussie take. Not only that, his newest book Scrawling is only 99 cents. Less than one dollar!

Just so you can get a feel for his wonderful writing, Jonathan has been kind enough to give me an excerpt to post on this blog. Ignore the endless winter outside, make a fresh cup of tea, and enjoy:

Cover of Scrawling - available on Kindle 

Neville Lansdowne drowned in a sea of words.
Of course, he didn’t really drown. You can’t actually drown in a sea of words. But you can sink a long way down into its depths, and that’s exactly what happened to Neville.
In the beginning, it wasn’t such a problem. Sure, there were always plenty of words around—at times, things got quite slippery with them—but it wasn’t anything Neville found too difficult to deal with.
Then, gradually, the quantity of words started to increase. Whatever Neville did, he couldn’t seem to avoid them. Wherever he went, he found himself overwhelmed by words as people talked to him and at him and all over the top of him.
It began to get worse. The words were everywhere. They bombarded him from radios and televisions and computers screens. They assaulted him from posters and billboards, and the sides of buses and trains. No matter how hard he tried, Neville was unable to escape them.
As the words accumulated, they became a major impediment to Neville’s movements. Initially, they pooled into puddles of words, which Neville was forced to step over carefully. But before too long, the puddles could no longer contain them, and the words spilled out all over the ground. Neville waded through, taking high steps to stop the words seeping into his shoes, but it didn’t help. Soon, his feet were completely soaked. And the level of the words kept on rising.
Now they were up above his ankles. Neville did his best to keep moving forwards. He kicked at the words, sending them splashing through the air, and he sloshed through the torrent with slow steps. Still, the words continued to rise, up past his knees and headed towards his waist. Neville flapped his arms, trying to clear a path. Progress was becoming impossible. He felt as if he was moving in slow motion, battling against a current that threatened to wash him away.
The current grew stronger. Neville had to stand firm against the battering waves of words. He planted his feet on the ground like a statue and stuck out his chest as each swell smashed against him. With the level of the words inching up to his neck, Neville raised his head and gasped for air. The words brushed against his chin and upwards over his mouth.
By this time, Neville could barely keep his feet in contact with the ground. He was on tiptoes, doing his utmost to hang on as the waves continued to slam against his body. As the words rose even higher, Neville hopped from one foot to the other, trying to hold his position against the pounding surf. But to no avail as one final massive surge lifted him up and away from solid ground.
Totally adrift, Neville did what he could to stay afloat. He kicked his feet and waved his arms, bobbing up and down in this ocean of words like a waterlogged yo-yo. Gradually, his arms began to tire and his legs began to lose their strength. Neville had never been a strong swimmer, and all this treading water—or to be more precise, treading words—was starting to take its toll.
Neville flapped and kicked and waved and gulped. With each gasp of breath, he took in whole mouthfuls of words. He raised his arm, hoping somebody might spot him, but amidst this churning whirlpool of words, he was not to be sighted.
The battle to stay afloat was one Neville knew he couldn’t win. Once, and then again, his whole body submerged beneath the waves. Once, and then again, he managed to fight his way back to the surface. He couldn’t keep this up. Sooner or later, his strength would leave him, and then he would sink to the bottom like a…a…a Neville.
At last, the moment arrived. The waves of words tossed him like an inflatable duck. The spray washed over his face, sending rivulets running down his nose and into his mouth. With his body utterly worn out, Neville knew there was only one thing left to do. He took one last gasping breath. Then he closed his eyes, held his nose, and dropped like a stone into the sea of words.
Neville Lansdowne sank down into the words. He had no idea for how long he descended, or how deep he had gone. However, the further he sank, the more he realised things were much calmer away from the surface. Far below the bashing and crashing of the waves of words, Neville felt himself being lightly rocked by a gentle current.
He opened his eyes. It was dark. Deep down in this wordy abyss, the sunlight struggled to penetrate. But it was also quiet and peaceful. At that level, it seemed the words no longer needed to batter into each other with such force. A stream of verbs brushed lightly against his cheek. Several shimmery, shiny adjectives spun around in tidy little vortices. A collective of nouns bubbled up beside him. Neville watched, transfixed. He had never seen words behaving like that before. It was as if he had entered a whole new world.
With a light bump, Neville’s feet touched the bottom. He stood for a second, balancing himself against the buffeting movements of the surrounding words. Then he looked up. Far, far above, he could just make out the surface. For a moment, he considered taking a brief rest and then seeing if he could swim back up again. After another moment, he dismissed the idea. What was the point? He would only end up subjecting himself once more to the bashing and crashing of the waves high above him. No, it was nice down here. Quiet and peaceful—just the way he liked it.
Neville sat down and watched the words flow past: prepositional phrases now cut loose and gently drifting; subordinate clauses languidly sliding by; even whole sentences gliding lazily along. Neville felt great pleasure watching them all as they wove patterns around him. Bereft of any meaning, they formed tapestries of both beguiling simplicity and endless complexity.
At times, as he watched, Neville thought he could almost read something in the shifting textures of the words. A couple of them would combine, just for a moment, as if to form some sort of logical association. But these never lasted for more than a second before reverting back to their previous random state.
This was fine with Neville. Trying to make sense out of all those words had been part of the problem. Now, in a world where words provided nothing except endlessly changing scenery of infinite variety, Neville couldn’t have been happier.

And here is the blurb for the book: 
Neville Lansdowne drowned in a sea of words.

Of course, he didn't really drown. You can't actually drown in a sea of words. But you can sink a long way down into its depths, and that's exactly what happened to Neville.

Deep down in an undersea world constructed entirely out of words, Neville meets some peculiar new companion and soon finds himself in the middle of another strange and wholly unexpected adventure.

Jonathan Gould has lived in Melbourne, Australia all his life, except when he hasn't. He has written comedy sketches for both the theatre and radio, as well as several published children's books for the educational market.
He likes to refer to his stories as dag-lit because they don't easily fit into recognisable genres (dag is Australian slang for a person who is unfashionable and doesn't follow the crowd - but in an amusing and fun way). You might think of them as comic fantasies, or modern fairytales for the young and the young-at-heart.
Over the years, his writing has been compared to Douglas Adams, Monty Python, A.A. Milne, Lewis Carroll, the Goons, Dr Seuss, Terry Pratchett, and even Enid Blyton (in a good way).