Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sunday Cocktail: Should I call it a Cucumber Slurpee?

It's Definitely an Ode to a Single Cucumber

I tried my hand at container gardening on the deck this year. All I wanted was cucumbers. See, cucumbers were essential for cocktails with Hendrick's Gin. But alas, the crop of cucumbers were not bountiful. It was rather, ahem, pathetic. The first cucumber had promise. It was beautiful and actually made the vine that had attached to our chiminea sag under its weight. However, a small varmint (squirrel, chipmunk, or?) took a huge bite out of it and I'm not sharing with rodents. The second cucumber also suffered a similar fate. But yesterday, we found one that was untouched and it was beautiful. Yes, tiny, but perfect!

A last hurrah to summer, right? It actually was a beautiful day for very late September, with a high reaching almost 80 degrees and bright sunny skies. . . I really couldn't resist. My Sunday Cocktail Buddy is out of town today and I had to carry on without her but I persevered. 

I muddled some slices of cucumber right into a Ninja cup. No need to mess up extra glasses (come to think of it I could have just drank the drink in the Ninja cup too but that was where I drew the line. I like a cocktail in a pretty glass at the end. To the muddled cucumbers I added about 1.5 oz of Hendrick's Gin and the filled the glass up to the maximum level with ice, adding Canada Dry Ginger Ale and a squeeze of lime juice. I placed it on top of the blender and it came out as a frothy Slurpee. A refreshing cucumber version of a Slurpee.

I think the glass does make it look festive. . . garnished with a fresh slice of cucumber.

Book Review: The Alchemist by Donna Boyd

Immortality Comes at a Price

This book is sweeping in that it covers the story, a personal account, of one man's life as an immortal. He unburdens himself of his history in present time, to a psychiatrist in Manhattan, confessing to a murder that has shook the world.

Sontime traces his life back to the training as a Practitioner at the House of Ra in Egypt, with two other children who find a way to bind themselves together to practice magic. Together they are more powerful than the sum of their parts and they soon question the rules in place and dabble in things that are forbidden.

Through a series of events, they destroy the world they live in and then try to use their powers to create a Utopian world for the masses. Balance is important and the three of them are often too cocky to realize the flaws in their magic, that may appear to be perfect but often unravel once the illusions are put into practice.

Sontime evolves from a young boy who is sure of himself and only regards his personal interests, to a man who is often tormented by a life that is so long that it is impossible to appreciate the small moments or have bonds with the people around him. After 3000+ years he is weary.

This is a wonderful book that is very descriptive in both its descriptions of the world of Ancient Egypt but also about the magic. What is so interesting is hearing the perspective of a man who has come from a world without technology to present time, where science and machines often mimic the magic he once had to use for simple things like lights and refrigeration.

This really is a wonderful story. Highly recommend.

Book Review: The Maze Runner Series by James Dashner

Three Books - 1 Review

You wouldn't just read the first one anyways. . . 

Perhaps I did go into this thinking I could read the first one and be done. My thirteen year old was excited about the moving coming out and wanted me to go with him. That involved reading the book as I always try to get the read on before the view. I had about a week and a half to get through it but I was done way before that and then immediately went on to Book 2. Why? Because Book 1 really left me hanging. There was really no resolution (not enough to leave it neat and tidy) so I really felt obligated to continue. In writing this, I have finished all three books in the original series but still have the prequel to read. From what I understand (as my son has read all of them) the prequel will give me some background history and the main characters in the Maze Runner will make a brief appearance but I don't have to necessarily read it right away.

Of course, there's no denying that this is a series designed for young adults (aka preteens and teenagers). That being said, I have found several books targeted for that age group wonderful reads. Top on that list is Harry Potter, of course, but I also enjoyed the Hunger Games series and The Fault in our Stars. What is a little peculiar to me is that recently the books that the kids are reading and are popular are in the dystopia genre. The world is always a horrible place and I find it depressing, even if the kids in the books (our protagonists) do end up triumphing and creating a brave new world. I am not so old that I don't remember books from my time at the same age and the world wasn't completely screwed up in terms of environment. Books like The Outsiders examined society and classes but the kids could still breathe the air without dying or worry that the government was going to kill them.

The story starts with The Maze Runner, Book #1. Thomas wakes up in a metal box that propels him into the Glade, a world filled with other teenage boys who have created order and built a society. Every 30 days the box comes up with supplies and a new boy to join the group. Thomas can't recall where he came from or anything beyond his name (typical of all of the boys) but quickly becomes part of this new world. The boys live in the Glade, surrounded by a maze and are determined to find their way out and escape and have struggled with figuring out the code for over two years. While the Glade is relatively safe, the world outside in the maze is not. There are many jobs within their society but Thomas wants to be a runner (one of the boys who maps the maze in an attempt to find a way out) although he can't figure out exactly why it's so important to him. Soon the relatively ideal world of the Glade is disrupted, almost immediately after Thomas' arrival, by a series of events that make the need to find a way to escape all the more urgent.

Escape from the Maze won't necessarily mean the end as there are many motives in play here. What if the world isn't what they think it is? Why were they sent to the Maze in the first place?

I don't want to give anything away but the book continues with two more books filled with challenges as the group discovers what is outside the protected environment of the Glade and beyond the Maze. The world may not be how they recall it and there may have been reasons that they have gone through what they have. 

This series was interesting and if you have a child between the ages of 12 and 16 this may be a good book to read so you can interact with them. I would recommend this one. It kept my attention.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Restaurant Review: Poppycock's Traverse City Michigan

Thai Sweet Corn Cakes

That's what it's all about.

Years ago, Poppcock's was part of the annual fall pilgrimage to Traverse City. On my very last trip there (more than a decade ago), there was a dish listed on the specials that I have thought about over the years. Now for some, the idea of thinking about a dish for that long may seem strange, but I blog about food so clearly I really love it. There were these wonderful corn cakes (think fritters) with a spicy peanut sauce. This was years before I fully developed my love for Thai food but I thought these were the bomb.

When I found out I was going back to T.C. for a work conference, I checked to see if Poppycock's was still around. I was pleasantly surprised to find out not only was the restaurant still there (and a fixture to locals) but the Thai Sweet Corn Cakes were now a regular dish on the menu!!!! While we tried many different dishes (that's the joy of going with a large group, I am starting off with this one because it did not disappoint after so many years! It was just as good as I remembered it. Sweet corn friend in light fritters, with a spicy peanut sauce, over a bed of field greens. They also paired it with fried zucchini and yellow squash. I hope I don't wait another ten years to have it again!

Well, you know I didn't start with these corn cakes. Of course there was an appetizer. Bahn Mi Dirty Fries. Oh yes, they were decadent. Sweet potato fries, with pork belly (and you know I affectionately call that "meat candy"), with daikon radish, carrots, jalapeno, julienne cucumber, cilantro, and Siracha sauce. Oh, it was good. The fries were on the soft side but the crispness of the carrots and cucumber balanced it out. And the pork belly was extra uber yummy.  Good good stuff.

So that was the sum of my meal, with the addition of dessert that I also partook in. Milk Chocolate Mousse with Coconut Cookie Crumbles. A light and airy dessert because frankly, I should have been done eating.

So that being said, remember I went with a large group? Oh the joy of passing dishes around! And people really got into the picture taking of all the food. Here are the stars:

1. Oahu Fish with bacon wrapped shrimp. I can't recall the sauce but it also came with green beans. Isn't it pretty! The diner raved.

2. Parmesan crusted whitefish. Fingerling potatoes. Grilled Asparagus. This was also delightful.

3. Grilled Sea Scallops with a sauce/glaze with root beer! Over potato croquettes. I would have never thought of all that but wow!

 4. Honey Chipolte Brisket with more sweet potato fries. Topped with Honey Chipolte au jus and red pepper pesto. Another winner.
5. Ninja Flat Iron Steak, marinated with ginger and sesame. Drizzled with soy and plated with an avocado salad, along with some more squash. Delicious!

There was also a Greek Quinoa salad and a hamburger. Those were also polished off.

And yes, I have to admit I tried several desserts besides my own. They were all delicious but by that time I couldn't even think about more photos of food.

There's a reason this is a staple in Traverse City. Yes, you should go there.

Restaurant Review: Pearl's New Orleans Kitchen Elk Rapids, Michigan

Down South Creole Food in Northern Michigan


Did that sound like a contradiction?

It isn't. It's really true. Good southern comforts offered near Traverse City for those who need a landmark. A couple of weekends back, I traveled to TC for a conference. I haven't been to Traverse City, sans kids or a husband, for quite a few years (think a decade or more) and I created a mental checklist of the places I would like to revisit after all these years. This was one of the top ones on my list and I was happy to hear it was still there.

For years, I had an annual pilgrimage to Traverse City because a dear friend lived there. I usually went in the fall, after tourist season, for a long weekend. There was always a trip to Poppycock's, dessert at Amical's (which I didn't have time to hit this time) and brunch at Pearl's. Eggs Benedict. Mmm, highly recommend it. It was always my last dish on my way out of town. I typically also took a Bananas Foster home for later. . . But I digress. This time we were able to do dinner. Dinner is always good, right?

It was a beautiful evening, a last hurrah for summer, especially up north in early September. We had the patio to ourselves, despite the sunshine and started with drinks. For my friend, it was a bottle of beer. For me, despite my own good sense, a Pearl's Cajun martini. Why would I say "despite my good sense"? Well because I simply have a vow not to drink them after a bad experience with my very own bachelorette party. . . But I couldn't resist the idea of a blue cheese stuffed olive, and a jalapeno spiked vermouth. Oh it was strong but good! I only drank half (common sense eventually prevailed).

We shared a Caesar salad before our mains. Instead of croutons there was fried okra and it was delicious! Then the mains came in the form of Po' Boys!

I do love a good Po' Boy and these did not disappoint. Crispy fried shrimp on mine with remoulade sauce and yummy sliced pickles. Cajun close slaw (nicely chilled and crisp) on the side. The roll was perfectly crusty without being dry and the shrimp had a tasty batter that wasn't overly spicy but had a lot of flavor. My friend had a beef brisket Po Boy complete with a wonderful barbecue sauce, and slice onions. The meet was so tender and soft, good stuff!

No dessert; we were stuffed! Pearl's was as good as I remembered it and did not disappoint. If you are in Traverse City, or anywhere near there, it's worth the drive!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Book Review: So Much For That by Lionel Shriver

A Message to Make the Most of What You Have and Don't Waste Time

I have read books by this author in the past and for me this seemed like a gamble. I have loved books from her such as A Perfectly Good Family (recommend) that featured three quirky siblings caught in an impossible dilemma. But I have also read books by the author that have made me angry like Double Fault that sucked me in and had such a disappointing ending (as well as characters that I felt no sympathy for).

I wasn't sure if I could like these characters in So Much For That but ultimately I did even if the author's portrayal of them was often honest and brutal. Death is never tidy and a terminal illness being one of the central themes of the story didn't always bring the best of out of people. The author did not sugar coat any of it.

Shep Knacker always had a plan to get out of the rat race in what he dubbed "The Afterlife", scrimping to save what he could for the ultimate goal of moving to a third world county and living in relative luxury due to the low cost of daily living. Every action along the way was in some way an investment for this ultimate goal which included some sacrifices along the way such as selling his successful business, renting vs. owning a home, etc. etc. Somehow the plan became more of a dream and Shep finds himself in a job he hates, working for the new owner of the business he developed and living in a house with a remote wife and an unreachable son. He decides that if he doesn't leave now, he might never do it, so he gives his wife an ultimatum to join him. His wife, Glyn, informs him that she has cancer and needs his insurance. Shep stays put to take care of her.

Even with insurance, Shep finds the savings he has worked his whole life to save for the plan quickly diminish. As a man with some funds, he also has a sister and a father who have come to depend on him and his relationships with them change as he becomes a devoted caretaker for  his wife. A gamut of emotions and trials find Shep transforming as he still struggles to keep it all together as he watches his wife in the struggles of staying alive. Glyn was feisty and a strong woman before she became sick and that doesn't change, and the natural supports that they may have envisioned become alienated quickly.

There are several other story lines in this book but there is definitely a social commentary on the medical system we have in America where even with money one can become bankrupt. Then there is the question about prolonging someone's life and at what cost from an emotional level as there is also suffering.

I really recommend this one. Powerful book without being preachy and the characters are well formed. I enjoyed this one despite the subject matter. 

Book Review: Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

An Epic Tale of Slum Life (and Gangster Life) in India


944 Pages of it!

I was really excited to find a book with so many pages that had so many positive reviews because there is something to be said with being totally immersed in a novel. This one was so engrossing and I would look for little breaks in the day to sneak off and read more. There were a couple of days that I snuck outside, away from the children, just to read undisturbed.

That being said, at about half way in, something changed and I'm not sure exactly what it was. The last quarter of the book was even less interesting and I have been trying to put my finger on exactly why I felt that way. I have come up with a list of potential reasons although it's probably a combination of all of them:

1. At the beginning of the story Mr. Lindsay arrives in Bombay to start a new life. It turns out that Mr. Lin, as he becomes once settled in, is really a fugitive from Australia after escaping from prison and a 19 year sentence for robbery when he was addicted to heroin. He meets a variety of characters along the way but one of the first is Prebaker who serves as a tour guide as he becomes acclimated. Through a series of events, Prebaker truly befriends him and eventually takes him back to his familial village and helps him transition to a slum village that he himself lives in when Lin has exhausted his funds. Lin becomes an integral part of the community, providing medical services to the overcrowded population who can't afford or access health care. To me, this story had an underlying theme of redemption, showing us another side of a hard and cynical man who could truly change. At that point, the story could have ended for me but over time Lin also becomes entangled with the Bombay Mafia. That in itself was fascinating and added another layer of depth to the story but soon Lin goes beyond some of the lesser crimes and becomes a full fledged member of this group. For me, something changed and Roberts could provide all kinds of justification for Lin's actions but I no longer felt sympathy for this man who seemed more interested in cash and that life. The conversations with other mafia members often seemed like trials about philosophy and it did not seem genuine to me but justification for their behaviors. The author lost me.

2. This book is based on the actual life of the author and is a semi-autobiographical account of his life. Roberts did indeed escape from prison. Roberts did actually flee to India. Roberts did frequent Leopold's, the local hangout for the foreigners that settled in Bombay. Roberts did establish a free clinic and operated it for ten years in the slums. Roberts did indeed work for the Bombay Mafia, engaging in activities such as being a gun runner, a counterfeiter, and a street soldier. I say all of this because so much of this is based on his life that I assumed some of the characters were real and did a little research while I was reading the book. I came to find out that most of the characters are fictionalized or are a combination of people that Roberts accounted. When I tried to find out about Prebaker and found out he didn't really exist I was (probably unjustified) disappointed and learning that none of these people were real, felt that the book fell flat. Saying this out loud makes me feel kind of guilty because most books I read are fiction anyways but I felt like I was sold a bill of goods that was false. Counterfeit. Maybe that's a theme too?

3. Towards the end of the book Lin goes to Afghanistan to fight in the war, supporting the rebels, following the mafia boss he admires/idolizes. The book just lost me. It wasn't Lin's war and it did not make sense to me that he went on a mission that had nothing to do with him.

So the question is do I recommend this book? I really could go either way. I found it fascinating to learn about life in India, especially in the slums where the community really banded together and made the best of what they had. The descriptions were so layered and detailed and I really liked a lot of the dialogue. I could have done without the mobsters who tried to justify their lives and sounded like philosophy professors in a lecture hall and the author's preachy tone that somehow was meant to make all of their actions somehow okay.

I don't think I'm going to recommend this one because the end just didn't do it for me and I had to trudge through about 400 pages to get there that left me disappointed.