Saturday, December 31, 2011

Self Indulgent Year End Fun

Year end best of lists are cliché and mandatory.  These are mine.  What can I say? I’m wildly original.

5 Albums I’ve had on Repeat

There was a lot to like in music this year.  I limited it by album because while any band can put out a great single, a full album of awesome has become pretty rare.

1.     The Joy Formidable, The Big Roar

I was late to this game, brought in by a remix of “Cradle” that I couldn’t get out of my head.  But as soon as I found my way in, I got so utterly lost that I put it on all of my mix tapes, sought out tour dates, and pretty much listened to it until my roommate yelled at me.

2.     Bon Iver, Bon Iver

Um, so I guess some people hate this? Whatever, their issue, not mine.  I love it, especially “Perth” but also all the rest.  I even love that one night, just before drifting off, I realized that some songs sound an awful lot like the soundtrack to Labyrinth.  Hey, there are worse things out there than David Bowie comparisons. 

3.     The Kills, Blood Pressures

I <3 The Kills.  This might not be the best album ever, but by golly is it enjoyable.  It’s raucous, and also sad, and while it is immediately recognizable as theirs, it still steps them forward.  I likes it.

4.     Tune-yards , WhoKill

The first song I heard was “Bizness” and I was equal parts weirded out and impressed.  Then I heard “Gangsta” and it was a game changer.  I told everyone I knew.  I became that irritating friend on Facebook.  Sorry friends (or un-friends as the case mightn’t be.)  This is unlike anything and utterly wonderful.  So long as you like your* wonderful a little on the wild side.

5.     James Vincent McMorrow, Early in the Morning

I really had this dude pegged as a one song wonder with “We Don’t Eat,” but the album as a whole snuck up on me and became me go-to What do I Want to Play Today choice.  Yes, it’s Indie/Pop/Folk and yes, there’s a debt to Bon Iver in there, but damned if it isn’t worth it.  Perfect lazy afternoon soundtrack.

*This is why spellcheck is evil.  It wants me to spell a possessive as  YOU’RE.  Idiots. 

5 Books that Blew Me Away

This was a good year for my reading habits (i.e., I got a lot in) and many of the best weren’t even published this year and are thereby disqualified (Drood (A+) Palimpsest (A+) Lord of Light (is there a A++?))  Genre books saw a resurgence of authors willing to tamper with boundaries and come up with truly new and occasionally profound ideas, and the mainstream market kept stealing from fantasy and then shamefacedly denying that it had done any such thing.   These are my personal favourites:

1.      Swamplandia! by Karen Russel

Yes, I know it’s everyone’s number one.  There’s a reason for that and I tell you now, you will know that reason within the first few pages.  This book is all kinds of magic and worth every penny.

2.     One Salt Sea by Seanan McGuire

McGuire’s always been a step ahead of the game, but with this book she took leaps.  Lyrical, hard hitting and deeply affecting, she blends myths, noir, humour, and the personal attachment readers get to long running characters, to build something that is much more than the sum of its parts, or even the sum of its plot.  Well done indeed.

3.     Spectrum 18

I love art because I am totally inept at it.  It’s also why I like dancing.  I started picking these up to remind myself about all the pretty book covers I’d read between, and kept at it because they are filled with amazing illustrations and crazy cool art.  Browse through one first-they’re an investment piece, and if it’s your cuppa, pay the real cover price.  These people work hard, and aren’t making much back out.  I’d like to see them continue. 

4.     Grey by Jon Armstrong

This book is just great.  Punkish, frank, frightening, and absolutely fresh, it looks at the dystopian future in a new light—fashion.  And wow does it work.  This is a challenging piece, and won’t be for everyone, but if you like a little grit and a lot of high concept mixed with a liberal dose crazy, you’re in for a treat.

5.     The Midnight Mayor by Kate Griffin

Speaking of both new and series, this is another instance where a standing series leaps forward.  I have no shame in my love of Matthew Swift, his neon angels, his gritty London, and his deserves-accolades author.  But in the second book in the series, everything is flashier, faster and just more.  It’s a wonderful series and such a welcome addition to the Urban Fantasy scene.  Also, I cannot express how happy I am that next year will bring me MOAR.

5 Amazing Time Sucks

1.     Funny or Die

Some of them are dumb.  And I tell myself, stop this madness, and then I stumble on Drunk History “The Night Before Christmas” and hours later I emerge, blinking in the natural light.  Click at your own risk.

2.     The Oatmeal

Always good for a giggle.  And also a fellow runner (though this freak does ultras, so extra crazy points.)

3.     The Bloggess

The internet phenomenon.  The one, the only, the actually funny.  Soon you too will follow her on twitter and Friend Beyonce.  The chicken. 

4.     People of Walmart

This is my Sunday morning lay in favourite.  I stay in bed and laugh at my fellow idiots. 

The best thing Steve Jobs never did, but still secretly had a hand in.  Not updated all that often, but worth it when it is.  I don’t even care if some are faked.  They are wondrous.

5 TV Shows I Get Home on Time For

TV is for lazy people.  It is also for tired people, sick people and people who just need to hit pause for a minute.  I like it.  These are shows like make me feel better, even when they make me feel worse.

1.     Justified

Um, this is the best thing on TV.  That is all.     

2.     Archer
Why are all the good things now on FX?  That is so weird.  This is a love it or hate it thing.  I lean to love.  And tea spitting giggles. 

3.     The Mentalist

WHY are none of your episodes available online EVER?  I hate that, because if I miss even one, I’m pretty much F*ed.  To recap why it’s great? The episode where they let the viewer self congratulate on figuring out the villain, get angry when they figured out the villain so fast, and then turned us on our heads by how they “caught” the villain.  Go team Jane. 

4.     Grimm

All I can say is that in one episode, dude basically gets murdered by a shake weight.  It is all kinds of awesome.  And I may have a crush on Monroe.  Just a little.

Um, so I really tried not to put this on my list, but not to would be LYING.  I just started watching this season and somehow ended up buying the first 2 sight unseen on Black Friday.  They may or may not* be why I was out at all.  Sure, they’re a guilty pleasure, but they may also be addictive like crack.  Tasty, tasty crack. 


Thursday, December 29, 2011

Book Binge

I’ve been a little more choosey since Borders went under and there’s no longer a SINGLE book store on my side of town.  Can you feel the bitter hatred?  It’s there in spades, believe me.  Which means there’s a little less snark on this go round, but I think  I might be grading a little more harshly too, with no true stinkers to balance things out.  It also means that I’m reading a bit less because I’ve having to a) drive b) wait until I can find time to spare & c) budget, because, hey, aren’t we all?  Anyway, this is what I’ve been wasting my time on this month.  Enjoy!

Grave Secret by Charlaine Harris


This is the fourth, and not sure, but maybe final (?) book in Charlaine Harris’ series about a lightning struck southern girl whose special ability is to find the bodies of dead people.  In the last book some inevitable plot spoilers took place, and in this one the audience gets the reward of everyone being just about as awkward about it as we would be in their shoes.  Which is nice.  The author would have had to jump through some pretty impressive hoops to ignore this one.  This is also the book we all knew was coming, the one where Harper finally finds out what happened to her sister all those years and white trash wonders ago.  It’s a doozey.  I was perfectly pleased by the way the relationships developed and unraveled, came together and fell apart.  The plot(s) are entertaining and well crafted, and Harris puts her background as a mystery writer to good use in giving us just enough clues to put it together while still managing to surprise.  On the whole, if this is the last, it went out on a strong and satisfying note, and if it goes on, I have reasonable hopes of them continuing to entertain.  While neither as swooningly romantic nor as funny as the Sookie Stackhouse books for which she is better known, these are highly rewarding never-the-less.  But do yourself a favour and start at the beginning.

Shadow Reader by Sandy Williams

This gets a ‘A,’ really? Yes really.  It is what it is (paranormal romance) and as that it excels well past much of the competition.  A college kid in Houston is all wrapped up in Fey politics because she has the rare ability to see where the holes the Fey cut in reality lead to, and since Faerie is at war, it’s a handy talent that both sides want to control.  I picked this up because I lived briefly in the city and was excited to see a fresh local (I love Seattle, but, seriously.)  There’s nothing of the city to be had here, though, as perhaps 6.6 seconds of it occur there and it’s a real generic there when it is.  The book, however, is pretty great.  As soon as our lead gets kidnapped by the “bad” guys the plot moves briskly, and the characters unfold in realistic ways.  Good and bad get obscure fast, though our heroine earns my respect by consistently trying to save herself and get back to her love, even when she begins to doubt him.  The political and economic backdrop, as well as the cold fact that neither side of any war is without blame are well thought out and intriguing. The romance part of the paranormal is at the forefront to be sure, but I was entertained thoroughly and WAIT FOR IT: there is zero sex.  Hip-hip-hooray!  Again, the angle is romance, not smexy time.  Overall, worth your time if you enjoy the genre.  Side note: why does the chick on the cover have a sword? Totally misleading.

Mr. Shivers Robert Jackson Bennett

Let’s just say that I ended up making a station on Pandora for this one.  It’s clues were Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Gillian Welch, and this trio pretty effectively sums up the feel of this slow moving but deeply creepifying novel.  A man who's lost everything  hitch hikes across the bleak and all-on-its-own horrifying landscape of the great depression searching for vengeance against a mystical figure who kills seemingly at random.  The afterwards acknowledges a debt to Waits and to Neil Gaiman, and I have to say they’re well warranted.  At times I can actually pick out the song that inspired the image, and the whole mystic road trip thing strongly resonates with American Gods, although avid Sandman fans will see the end coming from a mile off.  This pastiche/homage is why it gets the minus, and maybe because of the pacing too.  It is a slower read, but the odd, disturbing atmospherics build to an inevitable conclusion that rewards the effort. 

Fate’s Edge by Ilona Andrews

This is the third books in husband and wife writing team’s Edge Chronicles about people who live in the boundary between the world as we know it and the word where magic works like science works here.  Somewhere, they describe the series arc as fried appetizer, meaty entrée, desert, and the next as coffee.  This one is the fluffy desert and on that level it works.  Unfortunately, I was expecting something more like a meaty entrée.  A reformed theif and a con man turned spy get roped in to retreiving a stolen mystical object before it causes an international kerfluffle and have hijinks along the way.  This really needs for you to have read the first two books, which is fine, and to not mind some rather forced and occasionally random plot diversions, which isn’t.  On the whole it all works out, but honestly I’m a little annoyed that our villains give us less than their best and yet aren’t truly vanquished.  Grr.  Argh.  There are, however, moments of true humour and it reads fast.  They absolutely nail family and sibling dynamics, and do a well above average "long term results of drug addiction. " I liked it, but I wanted more after the high bar the previous book set.

Midwinter by Matthew Sturges

This is an older book that I’ve been putting on the back burner for a while.  You may know Sturges from the comics world, since he’s the guy behind the fabulous House of Mystery and has worked on Fables among other things.  I put it off because I’m not much for war/quest tales and every time I picked at it, the writing seemed to lean cliché.  But once I dove in from the beginning, it flowed much better.  It’s an odd blend of High Fantasy quest and Urban Elf changeling saga.  It bears some marks of a writer doing his first switch from a largely visual medium, but on the whole it’s satisfying and rewards patience with the occasionally episodic narrative.  As always, I despise villain narrative interludes, but this one works to make our villain complex and relatable rather than as a vehicle to live vicariously.   The book may have its challenges, but let’s just say I’m not against picking up the sequel.  The world is well built, the characters both flawed and believable, and the bad guys are never the cackle in their lairs kind, but more the doing the best they can kind.  Though Mab and her floating city are truly fearsome creations.  I’m not totally sure it’s worth 14.99, but it’s all over the web for less, and it is worth anything under 10 if you enjoy quests/faerie tales. 

Beauty Dates the Beast by Jessica Sims

Having just said that I can only hold a book to its genre standards rather than those of great literature, it seems harsh to slap this one with a B-, but it still deserves it.  If Shadow Reader is on the romance side of PNR, then this one tips the scale so far that it tips over the edge.  A girl whose sister is a werewolf in the closet works at a supernatural dating agency (a sadly underutilized goldmine of an idea) who’s strong armed into accepting a date with a were-cougar.  There are some genuinely enjoyable moments, and the author shows potential in the fun diversion market.  It’s fluffy, silly and utterly forgettable, but it is far from the worst way ever to waste an afternoon.  For instance, no faux rape scenes.  Yeah! (It’s sooo sad that this is a thing that I can be happy about now.  Yowzers.)  The plot is severely predictable however, and the the villain/s so obvious it’s a little sad.  Plus, a few of the plot obstacles are hackneyed.  This is a pick it up it you like the romance angle best (but don’t mind a little gore splattered around the edges) and get it used if you’re able. 

A note on Grading: on my Scale A=I might buy the hardback; B=pay trade cover price; C=get it used or from the bargain bin; D=used if you’re in to self flagellation; F=what, are you stupid?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Crepe Batter

I have a handful of weird Turkey Day traditions.  One of which is that, since I live near the airport, I host a super early breakfast of crepes filled with Thanksgiving themed goodies.  The batter also makes a frabjous way to dispose of leftovers afterwards.  Turkey crepes, stuffing crepes, crepes filled with cranberry sauce or spiced sweet potatoes.  You get the idea. 
This is also the foundation of my holiday French connection.  During this season, all of my cooking starts to take on a bit of a French edge, and by French I mean full of unapologetic butter.  Yeah butter!  So I also add flax seed mill to almost all baking.  Trust me, it’s not healthy, it’s just good. 

2 cups skim milk
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups unbleached flour
½ cup flax seed mill
3/4 teaspoon salt

In a bowl, whisk the milk with the melted butter and eggs. Mix the flour and salt in another bowl. Whisk the milk mixture into the flour. I refrigerate the batter overnight, but you can cut it down to just an hour if you need to.

To cook, pour a scant ½ cup of the batter into a large skillet on medium heat and slowly tilt pan to coat the bottom with batter.  When crepe slides around easily in pan, flip.  Crispy or tender is a personal call, so how long you leave them over heat is a bit of a learning curve.  Then just fill and roll.  Sooo yummy

Monday, December 12, 2011

Turkey Noodle Soup

Oh the leftovers.  How do I love thee? You don’t?  Why?  It’s the best part.  Just don’t make sandwiches and you’ll be fine.  Try this instead. 
I love this soup with unholy love.  The broth alone tastes like warm mittens and grandma’s kitchen and hugs.  Plus it’s pretty much like a flu-shot, because it will kill a cold stone dead*.

The carcass of the beast: leftover giblets such as neck and heart, all bones, any discarded skin
2 cups dry white wine
      3 ½ quarts water

4 carrots—2 coarsely chopped, 2 sliced 1/4 inch thick

4 celery ribs—2 coarsely chopped, 2 sliced 1/4 inch thick

1 sweet potato, chopped

1 unpeeled onion, quartered

1 large garlic clove, smashed

1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

1 large fresh bay leaf

6 oregano sprigs (sticks? Pieces? The branch they come on, don’t work for it)

2 thyme sprigs

2 rosemary sprigs
1 lemon, halved

Kosher salt

½ pound  noodles (Splurge on the good stuff or make your own)

      ½ pound shredded turkey leftovers, mostly dark meat if possible

       ¼ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

In a giant stockpot pour the wine over the carcass and heat on medium high until fragrant.  Add water, chopped carrots and celery, onion, garlic, peppercorns and herbs; bring to a boil. Cover partially and simmer over low heat for 45 minutes to an hour. Place a strainer over a large heat-proof bowl and spoon all large bits into it.
Add the sliced carrots, celery and sweet potatoes to the broth, cover and simmer until just tender, about 12 minutes. Pour any juices that have accumulated in the bowl back to the pot.  Add the noodles, turkey and parsley to the pot and bring to a simmer for about 10 minutes. Ladle the soup into bowls and serve hot.

*This claim has not been verified by the FDA, or any legitimate study, or anyone but me.  You know it’s still true.

Pumpkin Pie

I’ve tried exotic variations on this plan, and my honest advice is this: Don’t.  Just do basic so god damned well people fall over with shock at how much better yours is from what they expected (their mom’s-don’t lie.) 
The first and most important part of that plan is crust.  Crust is not hard if you have a food processor, even a fairly crap one.  Trust me, I had a crap one for years.  This one is designed to be shatteringly crisp and meltingly buttery

1 1/4 cups unbleached flour
Pinch of salt
1 stick FREEZING cold unsalted butter, cubed
1/4 cup ice cold bourbon whiskey, from the freezer cold

In a food processor, pulse the flour with the salt. Add the butter and pulse until the size of peas. Drizzle in the whiskey and pulse until the crumbs are moistened; turn out onto a work surface. Gather into a ball, flatten, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

4 large eggs
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons cinnamon
½ teaspoon cloves
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon ginger
½ chipotle chili
Pinch of salt
One 15-ounce can pumpkin puree (yes, canned, making your own SUCKS & isn’t any better)
½ cup heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 350°.  Lightly flour a large, flat surface, then roll out the chilled pie dough to a 13-inch round about ¼ inch thick. Fit the dough into a 9-inch glass pie plate and trim the overhang to an inch. Fold the dough under itself and crimp decoratively-the dough will shrink during baking, so build it up over the edge more than you think it will need.  Refrigerate the pie shell for 10 minutes.  I like to cut the remaining dough into tiny pumpkins (cookie cutter) and put them onto the center of the pie the last few minutes of baking.  It’s super cute and impressive without adding that much more work
Line the pie shell with foil and fill with pie weights (I’ve also used marbles, lima beans and cookie cutters.  The first 2 work, the last, not a good idea.)  Bake in the center of the oven until just set, about 25 minutes. Remove the foil and weights and bake until the crust is pale golden, roughly 10 minutes. Let it cool down a bit.
In a bowl, whisk the eggs with the sugar, cornstarch and spices. Whisk in the pumpkin puree, then the cream. Pour the filling into the crust. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the custard is set. Let the pie cool; enjoy the rave reviews. 
Note: I usually bake the custard WHILE we eat lunch.  It saves space, makes the house smell delicious, and nobody’s eating it until later anyway.  Trust me, they’ll be so full they’ll need a breather while it cools.

Crispy Skinned, Juicy Turkey

No, seriously, this thing was bad-assed.  I started the campaigning to scale back turkey cook times when I came home from college.  Less is really more, grandma!  The first time I was in charge of dinner, I spent A MONTH researching turkey recipes.  I’ve been perfecting this thing for four years, and this time was honestly the best.  Typically, I’ve been a dry-brine girl, but this time I mistakenly bought the wet kind and rolled with it.  Now I’ll never go back.  It’s time and space consuming, but dear sweet potatoes is it worth it.  Buy the brine.  The math on the cost control works in your favour, I promise. 

1 13-15 pound turkey

1 pkg of brine prepared as per instructions (with one key exception, I used pots of lapsang souchong (a smoky tea) instead of ½ the suggested regular water.)

2 sticks of unsalted butter, melted

2 tablespoons baking powder                              

3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary

1 tablespoon fresh thyme

1 tsp alderwood smoked sea salt

1 tsp fresh cracked pepper

4-6 strips of thick cut bacon

2 granny smith apples, quartered

1 large onion, quartered

Brine turkey for at least eight hours (I accidentally went in for 18, but that’s not necessary.)
Mix the baking powder (it’s what crisps the skin) with the butter, add in the herbs, salt and pepper.
Wash off the brine and pat turkey dry.  Carefully molest the turkey.  This part makes me feel super dirty, but it’s what makes everything taste better.  You insert your hand in between the meat of the bird and the skin, loosening it as you go.  Rub the butter mixture on and underneath the skin.  Be generous.  I like to air dry the turkey for about an hour at this point.  There’s always something else that the oven can be baking.  Or you can do what I did and join your area’s local Turkey Trot and run/walk a few miles to justify all the calories you’re about to be stuffing down your gullet. 
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Drape bacon slices over the turkey to add flavor and prevent over darkening.  Scatter the apple and onion pieces around the bottom of the roasting pan.  These are just aromatics.  Roast the turkey breast side down for 2 and a half hours.  Remove turkey and flip to breast side up.  Turn oven up to 475.  Roast an hour and a half longer, or until thickest part of the thigh registers 170 degrees.  Remove turkey from oven and flip breast side back down.  Allow turkey to rest for AT LEAST 30 minutes.  This is not a suggestion.  If you skip this part, all of the work you just did will still net you a dried out yucky turkey.  Leave it alone so the juices redistribute before carving and you’ll be rewarded with the best turkey in EVER.

Spiced Sweet Potatoes

I despise things with marshmallow topping.  Gross, eck, ewe.  These are the opposite of sticky-sweet.  They are spicy, boozy, creamy and eat-them-till-you-vomit delicious.  I make them for holiday potlucks, and people steal the recipe and make them for their own family get-togethers, I make it for my own family and they whine about lack of marshmallows.  Philistines!  They’re great; enjoy.

2 large, evenly shaped sweet potatoes, thinly sliced
½ cup bourbon whiskey
½ cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon cinnamon
½ tsp salt
½ tsp chipotle chili powder
½ tsp ancho chili powder
½ tsp cloves
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp allspice
½ galangal root powder
1 tsp black mustard seeds

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Whisk cream and whisky, then whisk in spices.  In a large baking dish, arrange the potatoes in an overlapping concentric circle, building upwards into the middle.  Pour Spiced cream over top.  Bake covered with foil for 20 minutes, then uncovered for 20 more or until sweet potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork.  If they dry out during baking, add more whiskey.  Liquor makes everything better.  This can also be made a day or two prior and refrigerated until the big moment.  Which makes it ideal for potlucks as well.