A (Thankful) Sunday Salon

I don’t know about you but I hate those posts where the blogger apologizes for not blogging because they are _________ (fill in the blank) busy, lazy, distracted, sick, tired, *whatever*.  So, I won’t do that.  Because really, nobody cares.

But from looking around I see it is time to dust off the cobwebs in the corners, water the plants, throw open the windows to air the place out and try to get rid of that smell of neglect.

Whew!  That’s better.  (Thank you, BOTB readers, for understanding, and for checking in with me.  I’m fine!  Just uninspired!)

At some point in recent weeks I all but stopped writing reviews.  I have all the usual excuses (busy, etc.) but mostly I’ve just not had the writing mojo.  I would sit down to write a review and the words wouldn’t come.  Now I have so many to write I may never catch up.  I’m thinking of clearing the slate and starting fresh, with the exception of books I agreed to review for others (thank you, authors and publishers, for your patience).  Has anyone else done this?  Just wiped the slate clean and moved on rather than trying to write reviews for books you read weeks ago?  (Thank you, blogging friends, for your advice in this area).

What happened to me?  There was a time when I reviewed everything I read, immediately upon finishing.  It’s much easier to write a review that way.  If enough time passes, the details get fuzzy, and nobody likes a fuzzy reviewer, right?

My aim in the new year:  fuzz-free reviews in a timely manner.

We’re looking forward to some quality family time this week.  The kids are off from school and I do not have to bust my butt cleaning my house and gearing up for company (yay!  YAY!) because Thanksgiving dinner will be somewhere else this year (thank you, Mom, for making dinner!).  All I’m required to do is show up with clean, well behaved children (ha!), a bottle of wine, and a casserole dish full of sweet potatoes (thank you, Tara, for the most excellent recipe!).   My holiday responsibilities end there.

The girls have NO HOMEWORK over the break (thank you, teachers!  I was expecting the worst!)  So we will be out carousing this week.. shopping, seeing movies, going roller skating, and just generally hanging out.  With no school projects to attend to, it will be a real break for them.  We are dying to see New Moon (even Mom’s looking forward to seeing werewolf  Taylor HOTner-all three of us are TEAM JACOB) and Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (thank you, Hollywood, for all the great movies this time of year!).  Daddy has to work (thank you, Dad, for being a great provider!), so it will be a whole lot of girl time. Hopefully there will be no drama and we will all get along.

I’m also looking forward to some reading time.  I’m reading How to Save Your Own Life by Michael Gates Gil, a super quick little guide to finding joy in unexpected places.  I need to finish Bold Spirit for a December book club discussion (thank you, book club friends, for enriching my life!).  And finally, I can’t wait to start Keeping the Feast by Paula Butturini this week (thank you, Penguin Group, for sending the book!)

What are your plans this Thanksgiving?  What are you reading?

I’m thankful for YOU.  HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

More Winners!

51be1lrnnnl_sl500_aa240_Erica Bauermeister, author of The School of Essential Ingredients, has chosen the lucky winners who will each receive a copy of her book!  I had asked people to email her with ideas for playing with their food or with a special recipe, and she got about 30 entries.  Here are the chosen ones:

Amanda (from Life and Times of a ‘New’ New Yorker) — whose boyfriend comes up with creative ideas for flavoring pasta sauce (jerk spice) and putting just about anything in the middle of an omelette.

Janel of Freeland, MI (from Janel’s Jumbles– this is her 2nd win from Books on the Brain this week!) who wrote a description of rice pudding that would make you head for the ktichen cupboards in search of those simple and utterly satisfying ingredients.

Lesley from Lincoln, NE (of Lesley’s Book Nook fame) whose commitment to books and food is so complete that she writes two separate blogs, one for each….

Thanks to all who entered!  And please see my left sidebar for other opportunities to win books!

Guest Post: Author Erica Bauermeister offers a Recipe and a Giveaway!

51be1lrnnnl_sl500_aa240_Erica Bauermeister is the author of The School of Essential Ingredients, one of my favorite books so far this year! In my review I stated that my only complaint about this delectable book was the lack of recipes. Erica, taking me seriously, wrote a guest post for me and included a recipe for Tom’s Pasta Sauce. Thank you, Erica, for the guest post and the wonderful recipe.. I can’t wait to try it!! Maybe I’ll make it for the hub on Valentine’s Day.. hmmmm.

The idea for The School of Essential Ingredients came from a cooking class I took in Seattle, but the approach that Lillian, the chef/teacher in the novel, has toward food came from my experience of living in Italy for two years. While I was there I learned to see food as a conversation between ingredients rather than a lock-step set of rules I needed to follow. At first, that dialogue between ingredients felt as if it, too, was in a foreign language along with the Italian, but over time I learned to relax, to immerse myself in the flavors and textures of the ingredients, to worry less about using recipes. In short, I learned to play with my food.

droppedimageAnd what I learned is that cooking is a very forgiving activity. Switching out one ingredient for another is a creative act, not a destructive one. Coming out from behind the protective wall of a recipe allows us to come into closer contact with the food itself. Thinking of a recipe as an ice-breaker, a conversation starter, opens up endless possibilities.

So here’s a recipe to get you started, because in her review Lisa asked for one so very nicely. A bit of background: Tom is a bit of a mystery to the other characters in The School of Essential Ingredients, who know only that he carries with him a deep and personal sorrow. It is Lillian, the cooking teacher, who instinctively knows that participating in the creation of a pasta sauce from scratch will be one way to help him heal.

I offer this recipe with the hope that you will feel invited/directed/inspired to experiment. What would happen, for example, if you grated some orange peel into your sauce? Or used chicken sausage, or ground lamb with a bit of fresh rosemary? How might those bursts of creativity affect the life of someone you love?

Tom’s Pasta Sauce

Note: For best results, use Knorr’s extra-large soft chicken bouillon cubes.
Crush the whole tomatoes in a food processor, or chop them finely by hand.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 extra-large soft chicken bouillon cube (see note)
1 cup onion, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 pound ground Italian sausage
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup red wine
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, drained and crushed (see note)
1 cup tomato sauce (more if you want)
Salt and pepper
1 pound penne pasta
Grated parmesan cheese (optional)

1. In a large sauté pan, heat olive oil on medium-low heat until bubbles form. Crush the half bouillon cube into the oil and mix thoroughly. Add onion and sauté for 2 minutes. Add garlic and sauté until translucent.

2. Add ground sausage, increase heat to medium, and cook until meat is no longer pink. Add milk and simmer until absorbed. (Don’t worry if it looks strange at first; the milk will mellow the wine and make for a wonderful, lush sauce.) Add wine, reduce heat to low, and simmer until wine is absorbed. Add crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil over high heat.

3. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 1-3 hours, covered if you want a rich, but slightly thinner sauce, uncovered if you want a thicker sauce and the smell to roam through your house.

4. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Cook penne pasta according to package directions, until al dente. Drain pasta and place in a large serving bowl. Ladle sauce over pasta; top with grated parmesan cheese if desired, and serve immediately.

Yield: 6-8 servings

Do you play with your food? Erica would like to hear about it! She has generously offered three copies of The School of Essential Ingredients to help me celebrate my big 100K hit milestone! If you’d like a chance to win a copy of this wonderful book, all you need to do is send an email by Wednesday, Feb. 18th, to Erica at bookgiveaway@ericabauermeister.com telling her about your favorite dish. She will choose 3 winners from those entries. Please be sure to state in your email that you came from Books on the Brain. Good Luck!

<—–Oh! And please check out my left sidebar for other great 100K Celebration Giveaways!

Review: The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister

51be1lrnnnl_sl500_aa240_ The School of Essential Ingredients is a lovely new book by Erica Bauermeister. With intimate tables and soft lighting, heavy linens and crystal, glossy hardwood floors and fabulous aromas drifting out of the kitchen, Lillian’s is a place to celebrate, propose, and announce.  It’s the kind of restaurant that will surprise and delight, with personal attention from Lillian herself and creative meals that leave all of your senses satisfied. 

On Monday nights, Lillian teaches a cooking class at the restaurant.  Eight students make their way to class, coming through the side gate and following the golden glow to the kitchen in back, where they will learn to cook from a woman who knows how to inspire her students to create food from the heart and from their memories rather than from a recipe. 

Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different student, alternating between reflections of their past and what is happening in the present, how they found their way to the class and how they get to know the other students.  Lillian seems to know just what her students need to learn, and the lessons transform not only their culinary skills but also their lives. 

Reminiscent of Garden Spells and Like Water for Chocolate, there is a bit of magical realism to the book- but just a touch- not overdone at all.  Abuelita is the woman who helped a young Lillian get her mother’s attention through cooking, who taught her to understand what is essential in each situation and what is not.  She shows her how food can evoke memories in a person, how you can bring about certain moods, certain behaviors and certain feelings with different types of dishes.  Lillian learns well and is able to pass that particular brand of culinary magic on to her students.  When they make a white on white cake, it brings back remembrances of the early days of a marriage for two of her students, a spicy tomato sauce brings thoughts of an Italian childhood for another, and a decadent tiramisu acts as the catalyst for a new romance in two more. 

Bauermeister’s vividly detailed descriptions of food leave your mouth watering and put you right into Lillian’s kitchen.  The writing is richly textured, lush and sensual.  It is really quite beautiful.    This is a debut novel but felt like it was written by a wise old soul.    

To give you an idea of the gorgeous flavor of the writing, and the beautiful imagery, here are a couple of passages.  I read an uncorrected proof of The School of Essential Ingredients, so the finished book may differ slightly. 

From page 23:

 At home Lillian opened the bag and inhaled aromas of orange, cinnamon, bittersweet chocolate and something she couldn’t quite identify, deep and mysterious, like perfume lingering in the folds of a cashmere scarf. 

From page 35:

 Set between the straight lines of a bank and the local movie theater, the restaurant was oddly incongruous, a moment of lush colors and gently moving curves, like an affair in the midst of an otherwise orderly life.  Passersby often reached out to run their hands along the tops of the lavender bushes that stretched luxuriantly above the cast iron fence, the soft, dusty scent remaining on their fingers for hours after.

From page 158:

The air was beginning to fill with the sweet spiciness of roasting corn, the soft whispers of the tortillas flipping, then landing on the grill, the murmured conversation between Abuelita and Antonia, something about grandmothers, it sounded like.  Chloe placed the tomato on the chopping block.  She was surprised to find how much affection she had for its odd lumpiness.  She tested the point of the knife and the surface gave way quickly and cleanly, exposing the dense interior, juices dripping out onto the wooden board, along with a few seeds.  Grasping the knife firmly, she drew it in a smooth, consistent stroke across the arc of the tomato, a slice falling neatly to one side.

See what I mean?  The whole book is like that!  I just opened random pages and easily found wonderful examples.  My only complaint about this book is that there are no recipes, however that makes sense since Lillian is teaching her students to cook without using recipes.  Still, it would be nice to know how to make these dishes- or to know what essential secret ingredient to add to tonight’s dinner to make my children behave and my husband pay attention!  

If you like good fiction and good food, The School of Essential Ingredients, which will be released tomorrow, is the perfect combination of the two.  I realize I’m gushing here, but I loved the warm little world within these pages, and was sorry to leave it.  

The author’s website can be found HERE.

Review: Chez Moi by Agnes Desarthe

9780143113232lChez Moi by Agnes Desarthe was written in the author’s native French and translated into English.  This meandering story is about Myriam, a 40 something woman with a haunted past who secures a bank loan based on a fictitious resume to open a restaurant.  Chez Moi (“my home”) is just that, both home and eatery, tucked into a small corner on a quiet Paris street without so much as a sign announcing it.  Myriam sleeps on a donated banquette in the dining room and bathes in a deep stainless steel sink in the kitchen.

 Myriam attempts to do everything by herself- shopping, cooking, cleaning, waiting tables, and bookkeeping.  She’s a talented cook but doesn’t have any business sense whatsoever.  Almost despite herself she begins to have regular customers but soon finds she cannot do it all alone.  Just when she needs him most, the best waiter in the world appears.  Ben has grown up in the neighborhood and knows everybody.  He’s savvy with money and knowledgeable about the internet and in the kitchen.  He helps Myriam’s business really take off, but more importantly plays a role in healing her fractured heart and helping her move on from her past.

 We learn about Myriam’s past as she ruminates over mistakes she has made in her life.  Her biggest heartache is her failing as a mother to her son, Hugo, who she never loved properly and to whom she has done something entirely repellant.  She doesn’t see how the situation can ever be repaired.   Fleeing her life some years ago, she has shut down emotionally.  Over the course of the book she starts rebuilding her relationships and begins to make new friends.  She learns to rely on herself and trust her abilities. I wanted Myriam to succeed and I rooted for her, although I thought she was a bit disturbed. 

There are a couple of interesting peripheral characters.  Vincent is a florist in the shop next door with a crush on Myriam and breath that could kill an elephant.  Little brother Charles is a successful businessman, and Ben the waiter is happily asexual. 

Food and friendship are at the heart of Chez Moi.  It’s a slim volume but a slow read.  The vivid description of food is a highlight and the writing is pleasant but there is virtually no action.  Some might find it boring, but I liked Myriam and I’m glad I got to know her.  I liked the book for it’s dreamlike quality, the interesting turn of phrase and use of language.  I’d recommend it to those who enjoy character driven stories and beautiful writing, but if you like a little more plot and a story that moves along quickly, this isn’t it. 

I heard about this book from author Jennie Shortridge, who recommended several books as alternative choices for book clubs in this post.  My own book club will discuss Chez Moi in January.  It will be interesting to see what everyone thinks, because it was definitely a different kind of read than what we’re used to.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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The Great Sweet Potato Debate

imagesThis year I am cooking Thanksgiving dinner myself.  Usually our only obligation is to show up at my mom’s house with a side dish, a bottle of wine, and a couple of well behaved kids (ha!  THAT is the hard part!) but this year, my mother went and broke her hand (on purpose, perhaps, to get out of making dinner?  Hmmm.) It’s in a cast and it’s making everything difficult for her to manage.  I’m more than happy to make dinner, but it may not be up to my mother’s very high standards.  She will just have to be ok with that!  

So I was at the gym this morning with my good friend Carrie.  Carrie, the perfect hostess.  Carrie, the gourmet cook.  Carrie, who effortlessly throws a sit down Thanksgiving dinner for 25 year after year.  We started talking about Thanksgiving when she said she had this new recipe for sweet potatoes that she was going to try.. something about peeling and cubing and baking.. Huh??  In our family, we open up 3 or 4 cans of Princella sweet potatoes, cook ’em, mash ’em with butter, brown sugar, and hot milk, top ’em with marshmallows and brown them in the oven.  Sweet Jesus, they are to die for.  As I was telling her how they were done in our house, Carrie was mesmerized.  She had never eaten sweet potatoes with marshmallows.  She said something like, “Why marshmallows?”  Seriously, you have to ask?

For me, Thanksgiving dinner isn’t the time to get gourmet.  It’s not the time to pull out the cookbooks and try something new, get experimental, or worry about calories or fat content.  It’s a nostalgic time, an opportunity to make all the traditional recipes you’ve had since childhood.  But I suppose every family is different.  Personally I can’t imagine Thanksgiving dinner without sweet potatoes and marshmallows, and I’d be willing to bet that most of middle-America eats them that way.  Am I right?

How do YOU do sweet potatoes?

Grace and the 2nd Degree Burns

I’ve never been very coordinated.  From childhood my family nickname was “Grace” said with a heavy dose of sarcasm.  My mother used to joke that I wouldn’t simply fall down the stairs, I would fall up them too.  I had two left feet and would trip over nothing.  If we went out to dinner, it wouldn’t be long before I tipped over my glass of milk.  Almost every photo of me from age 2 until about age 12 featured me with a skinned knee (sometimes two!)  I broke my arm 3 times, I broke my foot.  I had stitches in my hand, my finger, and my lip.  Trips to the emergency room were commonplace in my younger years.  Accident prone, clutzy- that was me.

Then I grew up.  Accidents got bigger (I totaled two cars before age 18 and a 3rd in my 30s) but I was less clutzy.  I was able to walk up and down stairs without bruising my shins. I was able to pour a glass of milk and eat out without embarrassment.  The only time I spilled things was when my mother was around, as if to prove to her that I was still “Grace”.

Until yesterday.  I decided I wanted to make my famous homemade lasagna.  As the sauce cooked, I boiled water for the noodles, but had to turn the oven off to take my daughter to a birthday party.  I left everything on the stove and hustled the kids out the door.  When I came back 30 minutes later, my younger daughter and her friend went down the street to see another friend, so I was alone in the house to finish making lasagna. Finally the noodles were done, so I put on oven mitts and carried the huge stockpot of boiling water to the sink, where it slipped from my hands, tipped toward me and poured it’s entire contents over my thighs and splashed onto the tops of my feet.  

I screamed as the pot fell.  I pulled the fabric of my pants away from the skin and made my way to the bathroom.  I carefully took off the pants (loose drawstring capri style knit pants that I wear to the gym) and grabbed a robe.  My legs were an angry shade of bright red and starting to blister. I went back to the kitchen for ice and the phone to call my husband, who was with my dad watching the Laker game.  As he raced home I tried to mop the water off the wood floor in the kitchen while holding rapidly melting ice cubes to my legs.

I found the one loose flowing skirt I own and put that on, called my neighbor to watch my daughter and her friend, and then we were off to the emergency room.  They gave me a Vicodin tablet almost as soon as I arrived.  An intern applied a cooling cream with a wooden spatula and wrapped it in wet gauze.  I literally wanted to jump out of my skin as he applied the cream.  He was careful and kind and very slow, but it was excruciating.  

3 hours later I was home armed with gel ice packs, an Rx for Vicodin and some antibiotic cream.  My little girl was my nurse and was so sweet with me, making sure I was comfortable.  My husband ran to the all night pharmacy for bandages and gauze and to fill the prescriptions.  I tried to sleep sitting up on the couch because lying down on my side wasn’t possible.  The pain was indescribable even with the Vicodin, but I did finally sleep, and this morning it’s a lot better.  Gross yellow blisters the size of golfballs have bubbled up on both legs.  My legs are all wrapped up now thanks to the expertise of my husband, who reminded me he is a former boy scout, and I’ll be lying down all day with the ice packs. Not exactly the fun Memorial Day I had planned, but on a positive note I will get some reading done!

Are you accident prone too?  Have you ever done anything this “graceful”?  If so, leave me a note and tell me about it.