Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Book Review: Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

There isn't really a museum but a story of five generations of a middle class dysfunctional family in England.

Ruby Lennox narrates her life beginning at the moment of her conception and details the chronicles thereafter through to the end. Along the way there are footnotes that tell stories/anecdotes about other family members, tracing patterns of tragedy, infidelity, personality traits, and scandals. We learn that everything in this family is connected, and not everything is how it seems to appear.

Ruby narrates her story from a unique perspective, often revealing her chronological age as she relates the events as they occur. This story as many details and interwoven plots through the footnotes that appear at the end of every chapter and it provides an interesting backdrop to understand those around Ruby and why they might behave the way they do.

I didn't really LOVE this book but it was a good read. There were equal parts humor and tragedy and it seemed very plausible. I sometimes found the plot a little disjointed due to all of the sub-stories that took us to different time periods. All in all I recommend.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Ode to Almond Joys in Cupcake Form!

Okay so officially they are brownie bites but let's not get technical!

I got this recipe for Almond Joy Bites off Pinterest recently and made them for a "take along" for a lunch we were invited to. I think they were a hit! They were also pretty easy, since you used brownie mix plus a couple of other ingredients (sweetened coconut, condensed milk, almonds, melted chocolate). I followed the recipe exactly so I'm not going to repost it.

I did find that my wrappers (cupcake liners) did not come off as easily as the original poster. I also baked half of the brownie bites in a silicon pan and the other half in metal. Note to self: Throw away that silicone baking pan, things just don't get crisp when you put the liner in and stay soggy! The ones in the metal pans fared much better and really were delicious.

Brewster Projects: A Visual Legacy

A History of Public Housing

Last weekend we went to Flower Day in Eastern Market, located Detroit. It's a thriving community, with suburbanites (including myself) traveling down to partake in fresh produce from local farmers as well as antiques and good food (food trucks!). Flower Day is probably the busiest day of the year, a celebration of impending summer and the hope that only flats of new flowers can bring.

In contrast, on this route, we always pass the monolithic structures that are the remnants of a long ago housing project that sits along I-75. Officially this development was called the Frederick Douglass Homes and was the largest rental housing project in the City of Detroit, with different phases of construction spanning from 1935 through 1955. It was really celebrated, with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt breaking ground for the first phase of the development.
Now it's abandoned but not really forgotten although it is scheduled for complete demolition with the exception of the community center. Recently a graffiti artist took on the monumental task to tag these large towers. It's eerily quiet and large empty spaces surround these towers. There is a community center that is fully visible from the freeway that looks to be newer construction but long forgotten.

On a personal note. . . after coming across this side of the building and the graffiti, we found the word "Kuma" and "12-11", both significant in our personal life. Kuma was our first dog, a Japanese Akita. In Japanese, Kuma means "bear" and seemed the perfect name for a huge dog. 12-11 is an anniversary for us. What a coincidence to find it on the side of a building in Detroit and I can't help but wonder what it meant to the artist who tagged it. What is most interesting is the skateboard park near this building that is also abandoned. Barricades block the roads (although if I was determined I could go two tracking) into this abandoned community.

There are other reminders of the families that used to live here, including a playground near the lower story buildings, in overgrown fields. You can imagine sounds of children laughing, while their parents looked on from a nearby bench and it is really very sad.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Book Review: Beautiful Malice by Rebecca James

A Quick and Delightful Read

This one really was a guilty pleasure.

I was still happy with the previous read "A Visit from the Goon Squad" and it's always wonderful when you can transition to another fine book.

Now this isn't any fine literary work but it was engrossing and fun. Katherine has moved to a new city and started at a new school to begin her life a new, transforming from her previous self as "Katie". Tragedy and the subsequent publicity of her family's experience has necessitated becoming someone else. She is no longer an innocent teenager but mature beyond her years, struggling with a burden of guilt related to her sister's brutal death. I don't want to give away any details as the story unfolds in it's own time, charged with tension, as three separate timelines (the past tragedy, her new life, and present time) take turns to tell the story.

Katherine eventually makes friends in this new world she has created and she can't believe her good luck. However, not everything is as pleasant as it seems and perhaps it is all a little too good to be true. Sometimes you can't really run from the past.

Fun and suspenseful read!

Book Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Random Snippets of Life Come Together

Music and Youth with Lessons for Life

This book in many ways reminded me of the movie Pulp Fiction. At first, I began reading these little chapters that each focused on a different person and couldn't find any connections. There wasn't a sequential order to the chapters or a linear direction that came together as a plot. But just like Pulp Fiction, it eventually comes together and tells a whole story.

There are some common themes in each of these little vignettes, coming from different times, people, and perspectives. The music scene is always present in some way, either in artistry, production or as a setting of a time period in this book. A common thread in all of the stories is about a music producer that makes it big in the punk rock world, first as a young teenager that is in a band (cliche I know), then as someone that learns the business and becomes a success in his own company. Of course, in a youth oriented business it doesn't last forever and things change for Benny as he becomes one of those "grown ups".

And so the underlying message beyond the music theme is all about youth. The dreams, hopes and aspirations and how those become compromised by sheer experience, fatigue, relationships and responsibilities that come by becoming one of those said "grown ups". Through this book, another cycle of youth becomes the new generation that will create a new world with new expectations and forms of rebellion.

I really enjoyed this book, each chapter brought a new insight with another piece in the puzzle that eventually formed a masterpiece, spanning at least a forty year mark (it's difficult to really pinpoint but I think it starts in the 1980's and goes through to about 2021). Eventually all of these little stories intersect and come together to make a pretty powerful statement and gave me pause to reflect.

I highly recommend this one.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

B to the 3rd Power: Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Brown Sugar

Math is probably not my strong point 

but the combination of these three ingredients was exponential!

I really love Brussels Sprouts. No one else in my family is a fan so it's a selfish endeavor to cook them. Adding the bacon really took it up a notch because the family was disappointed that they didn't get to eat the whole dish of the meaty goodness and it was going with vegetables. I think that in some ways (most ways) that think it's blasphemy to use bacon in a vegetable.

The recipe I borrowed this idea from called for the bacon to be rendered. Now I have heard that term repeatedly but wasn't exactly sure what it meant. I looked it up online and found this explanation. Apparently to render means to cook the bacon very slowly on a very low heat and let the fat be released. I found that with my cast iron pan, the fat did not seem to pool up and probably was absorbed into the pan. I can say that when I added the high heat at the end, it got crunchy and yummy, real technical terms!


1 1/2 lbs of Brussels Sprouts
3/4 lb of Slab Bacon, or similar
Garlic Salt and Pepper to taste
1/4 cup Balsamic Vinegar
1/2 cup dark brown sugar


Rinse the Brussels Sprouts and trim off outer leaves and cut off stems. Split each sprout in half.

Season with garlic salt and pepper. Set aside.

Dice the bacon and place in a pan over low heat, rendering the fat. Once most of the fat is released put on high heat until crunchy and browned. Set aside on paper lined dish and remove most of fat from pan.

Place the Brussels sprouts in the pan, giving them time to brown and caramelize. Flip them to provide more browned area.
Place the sprouts off to the side and add the vinegar to deglaze the pan. Scrape up any bits that have stuck to pan. Allow the Brussels sprouts to get coated and cook a little longer, until tender.

Add the brown sugar and bacon to the pan and stir to coat.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Milk Chocolate and Cherry Shortbread Cookies

I've been thinking about shortbread a lot lately.

Okay that sounds weirder when I say it out loud (well virtually anyways) but it's true. 

Good Enough for my Grandmother's China!
My friend Jill just came back from a "once in a lifetime" trip to Ireland. While the photos and stories of her adventures were really nice, I kept thinking about two things - Bailey's and shortbread cookies. She's a good friend because she bought me a large box of shortbread cookies back with her and I keep them stashed at my desk at work. While I was munching on them last week I thought back to some homemade shortbread I used to get once a year from a family I used to work with years ago.

Years ago I worked with children with developmental disabilities, identifying in home staff and creating goals for the staff to work on when providing services. As a thank you, many parents gave little trinkets or gifts around the holidays. One Mom always made these wonderful dense shortbread cookies and would put them in a these little plaid gift bags. You could smell the butter through the wrappings and there must have been so much of it in there because the  bag was so very heavy from the dense cookies. They would be hand cut little rectangles that were almost identical in size, stacked in rows in that bag.

The drive home from their house was about 45 minutes or an hour in rush hour. As soon as I left that house, the little pep talk inside my brain started. . . Okay just one little taste before I start up the car. . . Oh that was good, just one more and I'm closing that bag. Sometimes I would exhibit some self control and get on the freeway before I took another one. Just one more. . . Just one more. . . At some point, I lost any semblance of self control and by the time I got home they were all gone. Yes all of them. I shudder to think about the caloric intake or how many fat grams are in a pound of butter. Most of all I'm sad when I recollect about this that I never asked her for the recipe in all those years.

1 Whole Pound of  Butter - 4 Sticks!
In my opinion, good shortbread has to have a lot of butter and also a good amount of salt to add some flavor. I don't think I will ever be able to recreate that wonderful deliciousness without using the Internet to track her down and contact her after all these years so instead I decided to go with something different after finding a recipe online for a Chocolate and Maraschino Cherry Shortbread. This recipe called for dark or white chocolate and I'm not a fan. If I'm going to go with chocolate, in a cookie or cake, or on my ice cream in form of hot fudge, it's milk chocolate all the way. If you follow my recipes (or my revisions to other recipes) you know I'm a fan of almond extract in baking so I added that in equal parts with vanilla extract.

I found that my cookies were definitely pinker that the photos in the original recipe. I am not sure if the original recipe really was more of a candied cherry rather than a maraschino cherry. I chopped up a jar of maraschino cherries and did pat them with a paper towel to get rid of some of the juice but there was enough to stain the dough to a pretty shade of pink.

I also doubled the recipe. . . I figure if I'm going to the trouble to make cookies I'm going to really make a lot. Between kids and coworkers there is always a demand for snacks. I didn't mind doubling the recipe because there was no rolling or cutting them out - making a log and slicing it later is easy. Have I mentioned I hate rolling out dough and using cookie cutters?

Now doubling the recipe poses a problem. I have had this issue before. My mixer doesn't really like 4 cups of flour and one pound of butter but I forced it. I should not admit that but I am going to. I do that a lot and about every ten years I have to buy a new mixer. I think it's worth it. How did I force it? Well when it started bouncing up, I held the bowl down so it wouldn't tilt. Helpful hint, put the protective plastic guard on when adding the dry ingredients. I put in small batches of the flour mixture (1/4 cup at a time) and let the dough really incorporate.

When I got to adding the cherries and chocolate chips (isn't that pretty?) I really had to hold the bowl down. If you don't want to have to do this maybe cut the recipe back down. . . Like I said, I really like to make a lot of cookies at one time. Life is too short to watch my kids finish them in record time - all that work! By the way they loved them. They keep sneaking them when they think I'm not looking!

Milk Chocolate and Cherry Shortbread Cookies 


2 cups (4 sticks - 1 whole pound!) of salter butter, room temperature
1 cup powdered sugar
4 cups of all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 16 oz jar of maraschino cherries, drained and chopped
1 cup milk chocolate chips
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract


Using a stand mixer or similar equivalent, cream the butter and sugar

Mix the flour and salt, add in small batches to the creamed butter and sugar, until it starts forming a dough. I put the cover on the mixer and then put 1/4 cup batches of the flour and salt into the bowl.

Add cherries, chocolate chips and flavored extracts.

Form the dough into logs and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill for at least an hour.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Cut the logs into 1/4 inch slices, placing them on lined or greased baking sheets with a inch of space between cookies.

Bake  in oven for about 15 minutes. If your cookies are pink like mine do not wait for them to brown!

Cool completely.



Saturday, May 11, 2013

Book Review: Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster

A Cast of Characters Makes the Mundane Interesting

A Retiree Moves to Brooklyn to Wait to Die

Meet Nathan Glass. He thinks he's done with living and will be a spectator as he waits to die. He has retired from his job as a successful insurance salesman. He seems to have beat cancer but he considers himself old and without any connections so he moves back to his hometown of Brooklyn after a life in the suburbs and waits. He figures that not much will happen to him so he will reflect on his life by writing a book about the follies he has encountered in his own personal history and experiences.

Sounds pretty mundane doesn't it? Little scraps of paper with anecdotes from his past become his mission. However, life seems to get in the way and fate intervenes. Nathan soon has a chance encounter with his nephew Tom, a long lost relative that is just one of the many people that we are introduced to through this story. We will eventually meet a cast of characters, all with their own quirks, that each have a impact on Nathan and distract him from his plan to wait and die. There is of course Tom, an academic prodigy who ends up basically giving up to drive a cab before he finishes his doctorate. There's Harry, the flamboyant bookstore owner, with a checkered past. Then there's "Beautiful Mother" that Tom admires from a far as she waits for her children to be picked up by the school bus each morning.

The Brooklyn Follies has many lessons but most of all that life continues to go on and there are chapters to one's life. What was once important and treasured may be less essential when love, relationships and connections are made. Class, politics, and academia, as well as money don't buy happiness.


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Book Review: Brava, Valentine: A Novel by Adriana Trigian

International Romance and Shoes

A Modern Day Fairy Tale

Meet Valentine, a single woman working on bringing her family's tradition of making shoes to the next level with mass production and affordable merchandise for the discerning masses. Valentine is smart and artistic, committed to keeping her shoe factory in business and growing. The matriarch of her family, her grandmother, taught her everything she knows about shoe designing and making but now it's time for her spend time her her true love. That new life means a move to Italy and leaving the shoe business in Greenwich Village in Valentine's capable hands. However, there's a twist, the grandmother has also brought Valentine's brother into the business as an equal partner and Valentine does not get along with her business minded brother Alfred.

All work and no play? Well it turns out Valentine is pining for her own love. . . Gianluca, her grandmother's husband's son. Problem is, he lives in Italy too and he's much older, with grown children.

Sounds a little bit like a soap opera doesn't it? In some ways it may be but the book comes through with humor as Valentine narrates the story. Apparently this is a sequel to Very Valentine but I was able to catch on without having read the first and not having all the background of the plot was just fine.

An amusing little read with lots of humor, romance, and international travel. It was a pleasant distraction that was quick to complete.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Bang Bang Shrimp and Brown Rice for Sunday Night Dinner

. . . Okay, only one "Bang" because they aren't so spicy!

I love Sunday Night Dinners


As I start to write this I have two kids that are AWOL - one is swimming at the neighbor's house and the other is on a bike ride. It's a beautiful day and the sun is shining. I love a lazy Sunday with the prospect to read a good book on the front porch once I have most of dinner ready to go. The house is really quiet and it smells so good. I have a "Kicked Up" banana bread in the oven right now, topped with brown and turbinado sugars, with pecans and chocolate chips like I have made previously. I think it might be an extra notch to put the warm slices in a bowl with ice cream and hot fudge. . . Mmmm hmmmm.  I also have risotto simmering on the stove as I do not anticipate leftovers from dinner for lunch tomorrow.

Dinner tonight is based on a recipe for Bang Bang Shrimp at  Cinnamon Spice and Everything Nice. Apparently Reeni over there made a copycat recipe for this dish from Bonefish Grill. Like Reeni I have never been there but this is good stuff. We tried this last week for a quick impromptu meal and while I had my hesitations about everyone liking it, all of us did. Her version is an appetizer but if I'm going through this kind of work, I believe we should make it a meal. Of course that required some small revisions from the original recipe - I had to omit the green onions and reduce the spice factor in the flour that we dipped the shrimp in and I used Old Bay to make it easier, hence the one "bang" instead of two. I also had to make some changes to the sauce, decreasing the amount of sweet chili and serving it on the side rather than drizzling it on the top.

This tastes really good with brown rice and I use the Trader Joe's microwavable packets to make it even simpler. I also couldn't resist and made another side of corn bread pudding but there's nothing fancy about that - it's just a packet of Fiesta Sweet Corn Cake mix from the grocery store from the Old Chi Chi's restaurant chain. You add a can of creamed corn, some melted butter and water and just bake it.  I wonder if they even have restaurants anymore or if they only sell salsa and corn bread pudding? I used to really enjoy their seafood enchiladas and also the fried ice cream.

So here is my version - Plain Old One Bang Shrimp!

One Bang Shrimp Recipe

1 lb of frozen cooked shrimp, tail off, Large Size, thawed
1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon of garlic salt
1/2 teaspoon of Old Bay
1/4 teaspoon of Herbs De Province
1 cup Panko crumbs
4 eggs, beaten

3/4 cup mayo
4 Tablespoons sweet chili sauce
1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar

Oil for frying


Thaw shrimp ahead of time under cool running water. Drain in a colander, setting a dish under the colander to place in the fridge.

Sweet Chili and Mayo Sauce
Mix mayo, chili sauce and wine vinegar and place in fridge, covered to chill.

Flour and Seasonings
Mix the flour together with seasonings

Set up an assembly line for battering shrimp. Dredge the shrimp individually first in the seasoned flour, then egg, letting extra drip off, and then into panko crumbs. Place on plate. 

Put the plate of shrimp in the fridge to chill for at least a half hour.

Preheat oil in deep frying pan. In batches fry the shrimp and transfer when done to a plate lined with paper towels.

Place on cooked rice and serve sauce on the side.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Book Review: By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham

Art, New York, and a Midlife Crisis

Sometimes tolerable living isn't living at all?

Peter Harris has a wife, a reputable art gallery and is having a midlife crisis. He may just not know it. Life is fine and he goes through the motions every day until a catalyst, in the form of his younger brother in law, comes to stay in his home. Mizzy (aka Etha, and a nickname for "Mistake"), is much younger and quite attractive. He becomes a mirror, the reflection of Peter's wife Rebecca in her younger years, as well as an image of recollection of Peter's own youth and spirit. It's a disastrous combination which causes Peter to start questioning his daily existence in all its aspects, especially love and art.

This book was written in a similar style/narrative to Bright Lights Big City and there were a lot of common themes. In many ways, this book could be the same story of that book just fast forwarded twenty years. The 80's become present time. The disillusioned carefree youth (oxymoron I guess) become the jaded middle aged. The drugs and wild clubs become fancy wine and art showings. I also saw glimmers of the Great Gatsby in this book, well before the book actually started to reference Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan.

I really enjoyed this book and while I don't want to acknowledge that I'm definitely entering this demographic of "middle age" I felt I could identify with a lot of this book. What is the definition of beauty and is art for art's sake? I could empathize with Peter and his fragmented relationship with a daughter who is already disillusioned. And finally, all of us look back at your youth and wonder what it would be like to get it back again.


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Coconut Fried Shrimp and Goat Cheese Potato Gratin

Thank G-d for Pinterest

Crunchy Coconut Chicken Strips with Mango Dipping Sauce and Goat Cheese Gratin

I remember the good old days. . . Some of you can commiserate with me. What to make for dinner? Leafing through cookbooks or magazines, index cards sorted in a little box (there was even paid membership), exchanging with friends.

Well the Internet has really changed that whole pursuit of the perfect recipe. Not only do I get to do a refined search for what I have on hand (or in my case I work backwards and go shopping for the items that we will need) but I get actual reviews from other real live folks that have already tried the recipe. I haven't used a cookbook in a really long time and I really am trying to figure out why I still have them collecting dust in the kitchen.

I start getting our grocery list ready on Thursday or Friday, plugging in what I plan to make for the week, comparing it the inventory we have on hand in the fridge and the pantry (okay it's a cabinet, "pantry" is fancy), and typing up a list of what we need. I have made a semi commitment to myself to try at least one new recipe a week. As I have said before, I have picky eaters here and my goal is to get all of them to like something once in a while. Chicken Cordon Bleu a couple of weeks ago was a big hit so I sometimes get a winner.

I am not a big chicken fan. I don't like bones and I really hate cleaning/preparing it. I can tolerate skinless boneless chicken breasts so that give me some options. Chicken is relatively cheap and the Hendren kids seem to like it so that really goes far in planning. This week we tried a crunchy coconut chicken strip recipe that was meant to be an appetizer (I tripled it and it was way too much but that made lunch for the husband today, and lunch for the kids tomorrow) and I was intrigued by this goat cheese potato gratin which is going to do double time tonight for dinner too.

The sauce was super easy to make. Trader Joe's sells frozen mango chunks and you just let them thaw a little bit (really do let them thaw, otherwise the honey kind of freezes), with mayo and honey. I did not add the cilantro (I'm not a big fan) but did sneak some curry and Sriracha in it. Good stuff! It's not super sweet and it was balanced with the chicken. I made the sauce ahead of time and put it in the fridge for later. It made plenty - no need to double this even if you double the chicken.

Mango Honey Dipping Sauce

First layer of potatoes, goat cheese, Parmesan cheese and garlic
The goat cheese in the gratin was a different taste but not overpowering for those cautious about goat cheese. It was really creamy and it had a good balance with the Parmesan and the garlic. I did not have a mandolin so I tried to slice the potatoes as thin as possible but I'm sure they were thicker than the original recipe. I baked them and then warmed them up a little later. I find that gratin does not always do well the next day - it seems to dry out when you rewarm it - so I wrapped it in foil and put it on a very low temperature.