25 October 2014

Weekend Cooking: The Kitchen Journal 16

Weekend Cooking hosted by www.BethFishReads.comWeekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.

Although I have a few cookbooks to review, I wanted to finish the conversation I started last week about meal planning. It's been a very interesting month for me; after four decades of never planning, here I am attempting to change my ways.

Thoughts on Meal Planning: On the whole, I've come to like the idea that my dinners are worked out ahead of time, but I still miss some of the spontaneity that I've grown accustomed to over the years. One of my goals was to try to shave our grocery bill without compromising on freshness and quality--not an easy task. A benefit of creating a dinner calendar is that I'm now in the habit of checking what's in the pantry and freezer before I head to the store, which is one way of staying on budget.

This last week we were only $9 over our arbitrary goal, so I consider that a win. What's funny is that even though our bill was less than normal, we seemed to have had an extra-abundance of food. Fortunately, nothing went to waste because I simply ditched one of the pantry meals and repurposed the veggies.

Meal Planning Resources: Yes, I have a good supply of pencils and paper, but I thought I'd do some research into some of the many available meal-planning apps and programs. What I discovered is that none of them is perfect for me, but I signed up for a free 30-day trial with Plan to Eat just to test it out. The program is a combo recipe database, calendar, and shopping list. There are some great things about it (for example, how easy it is to import recipes from the Web), but the shopping list is kind of wonky, and the site doesn't offer much more than I could do with a notebook and Pinterest. I doubt I'll pay for the service.

Seasonal Wine and New Beer: It's Apothic Dark time again. If you like red blends, you might want to pick up a bottle or two of this. The price is right, the flavor is heavenly, and it's available only in the fall. We recently tried KCCO black lager, which Mr. BFR has become fond of. Although I like it and I'm happy to drink it, it's not my favorite black lager or dark beer. If you like dark beer, give it a try and see what you think.

Hit Dinner of the Week: The uncontested winner this week came from the October 2014 issue of Bon Appetit: Roasted Cauliflower and Ricotta Grandmother Pie (the photo is from the website; click the link for the full recipe). This is essentially a sauce-less pizza made in a large rimmed baking sheet. I was going to make my tried-and-true pizza dough, but I decided to use the one from the magazine. We loved both the crust and the pie. The recipe makes a ton, though, and we had if for two dinners and a lunch.

I, of course, had to make a few changes, so I wanted to tell you how I deviated from the recipe.
  • For the dough: I didn't make my dough ahead of time and simply skipped the 24 hours of chilling.
  • For the pizza: I added a diced large red bell pepper to the cauliflower before roasting because I wanted to use it up and thought it'd be pretty. I used only 2 anchovies because we find them so salty. In the optional steps, we discarded the lemon but kept the garlic, which I had cut into a very small dice before roasting.
  • What I'd do differently next time: I'd use only half the breadcrumb topping. We loved the topping but didn't think the pizza needed as much as the recipe called for.
There are three other variations to this pizza in the magazine and on the website, and we'll likely work our way through all of them.

Next week, I hope to have a cookbook review for you. I have several new books I can't wait to share with you.

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24 October 2014

Review: The Ugly Renaissance by Alexander Lee

What does the Renaissance mean to you? If you're like most people, you immediately think of beautiful paintings, sculptures, and basilicas. You might also think of Columbus's voyage and the Protestant Reformation. But you might not remember that the Renaissance was also a time of plague, papal corruption, and a general intolerance for non-Christians and non-Europeans.

In The Ugly Renaissance, Alexander Lee gives us the broader picture of what it was really like in Florence when Michelangelo was carving his David. Few topics are safe from Lee's scrutiny, from sex and greed to disease and poverty. And thanks to Lee's informal and approachable style, the true story of the people and places of the Italian Renaissance is easily accessible and utterly fascinating.

Because the Renaissance occurred throughout Europe and over the course of centuries, Lee narrowed down his scope to three cities in Italy, with a particular focus on Florence, between the years 1300 and 1550. Besides relying on the usual sources (diaries, letters, contemporary publications), Lee also examined various tax and court records to determine, for example, how an artist's income measured up to, say, common laborers in the textile industry. (Hint: You may have been better off to have been a weaver than a studio artist.)

As well as showing us the very human side of the great artists (Michelangelo got into bar fights), Lee takes on a walk through the streets of Florence, into the rich estates of the famous patrons (like the Medicis), and into the papal quarters of Rome. Artists, patrons, and the Church were intimately (in pretty much all senses of the word) connected, and painters were often forced to juggle their own artistic sense with the political ambitions of their clients and the restrictions of Catholicism.

Moving beyond the world of art, we meet the Renaissance popes (such as the infamous Borgia pope) and learn about Rome's relationship to Italy's rich and powerful. Lee airs the Vatican's dirty laundry, including suspicious deaths and family bids for papal dynasties. We also learn about technology and warfare, the prevailing attitude to people of vastly different cultures and religions, the plague, and money and banking.

Although the general thesis of The Ugly Renaissance is likely to offer few surprises, especially in light of the popularity of the Showtime series The Borgias, Alexander Lee presents some less well known details and closely examines representative works of art to show the unromantic side of the "age of beauty." His obvious scholarship is tempered by his entertaining and easy-to-read style, making The Ugly Renaissance widely appealing to everyone from the serious student to the causally curious.

I alternated listening to the unabridged audiobook (Random House Audio; 15 hr, 51 min) and reading the print edition (an approach I often take when reading history and biography). Narrating nonfiction can be tricky, but Arthur Morey did an admirable job of capturing Lee's style and keeping me invested in the book. I was especially grateful for the correct pronunciations of names, places, and so on, which always enhances my connection to a book. As an added bonus, the audiobook comes with a PDF (disk or download) containing the visual material found in the hardcover book, so listeners don't have to scramble to find a copy of the artwork discussed in the text.

Random House / Doubleday, 2014
ISBN-13: 9780385536592
Source: Review (audio) / bought (print) (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy

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23 October 2014

Review and Giveaway: Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

Don't you love it when you discover a book you want to recommend to everyone you meet? When I was offered the chance to read Colm Tóibín's newest novel, Nora Webster, I said yes because I usually like novels set in Ireland, especially those that take place in the late 1960s, as the Troubles began.

As soon as I started reading the book, I realized I had stumbled across a moving, thoughtful character study with broad appeal. By the time I finished, Nora Webster had earned a place on my list of best books for 2014.

On the surface, Nora Webster is about a forty-year-old Irish-Catholic woman who finds herself widowed too young with four children who still need parenting. On deeper levels, however, Tóibín explores independence, the Church, and need for people to find their own path.

Right from the start, Tóibín masterfully creates a fog of mourning around Nora, letting us experience a feeling that is often difficult to describe. As in real life, Nora reengages only slowly and is, of course, not quite the same person she was when her only concerns were being a wife and mother. Nora is a complicated person who can sometimes seem cold or weak. But the truth is she's simply struggling to figure out who she really is, now that she's completely in charge of herself for perhaps the first time in her life. Nora Webster is an immensely personal and inner examination of one woman's journey through grief.

The biggest thorns in Nora's side are all the well-meaning (or are they controlling?) friends and family (and even a nun), who think they know just what the widow needs. What she really needs is the privacy, space, and time to handle things in her own way. Her other issue is her kids. The girls are older and can take care of themselves, but the younger boys are a mystery to her. Having grown up with a nosy and opinionated mother, Nora does her best to stay out of her children's way. But, she wonders, is she too distant? Yet she cannot bring herself to pry.

Running throughout the novel are cultural and historical details that bring a richness to Nora Webster. Besides touching on the more obvious concerns that Nora shares with all women of her generation, Tóibín makes it clear that the Webster family is not living in isolation. The Church and small-town dynamics are forces to be reckoned with in Nora's Ireland, and the rise of the IRA and the Troubles are on everyone's mind.

Over the course of three years--from her husband's death to the end of the book--the world is beginning to shift. Nora is adjusting to being single, radical Catholic groups are becoming violent, Americans have walked on the moon, and the Webster children are finding their paths. Colm Tóibín's beautifully crafted novel is a testament to the importance of being true to oneself, even (or especially) during times of great change.

The Giveaway: Thanks to Simon & Schuster, I'm happy to be able to offer two of my readers with a U.S. mailing address a copy of Colm Tóibín's Nora Webster. All you have to do to be entered for a chance to win is to fill out the form. I'll pick a winner via random number generator on November 3. Once the winner has been confirmed, I'll erase all personal information from my computer. Good luck!

More Information and Opportunities: For more on Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín, be sure to visit the Simon & Schuster website, where you can read an excerpt, check out other reviews, listen to a sample of the audiobook, and download the reading group guide.

For more great content from Simon & Schuster and to be among the first to learn about new books and blogging opportunities, join Simon & Schuster Insiders. This program is geared to book lovers who like to help spread the word about good reads. To join in the fun, click the link and be sure to search for #simoninsiders on all your social media.

Disclosure: This post is sponsored by Simon & Schuster. All thoughts and words are completely my own and reflect my honest opinion. #simoninsiders

Simon & Schuster / Scribner, 2014
ISBN-13: 9781439138335
Source: Review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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21 October 2014

Wordless Wednesday 312

A Whole Mess of Gourds, 2014

Click image to see it full size. For more Wordless Wednesday, click here.

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Reading on Topic: These Old Houses

In the department of random publishing trends for 2014, I've found a number of novels that incorporate the theme of fixing up an old house. It can be scary thing to renovate a home--and I'm not talking about costs and sawdust. Sometimes, however, if you enter such a project with your family, you may discover some peace and happiness at the end.

Today's Reading On Topic looks at old houses. Warning: You might think twice about accepting that inheritance from your grandmother.

Family Drama behind Closed Doors

  • Three Story House by Courtney Miller Santo (William Morrow; ISBN: 9780062130549; August 2014): Lizzy, Elyse, and Isobel--cousins and best friends--are reunited to save their late-grandmother's Memphis house from the wrecking ball. As the cousins learn the perils of renovation, they also learn some family secrets. In the end, will they find a future not only for the house but also for themselves? An engrossing contemporary novel told from three viewpoints.
  • Rooms by Lauren Oliver (Ecco; ISBN: 9780062223197; September 2014): Caroline and her children inherit their house not from Grandma but from Caroline's ex-husband. Although they can handle cleaning out decades of junk from the old place, they don't know what to do about the ghosts who use the house itself to communicate their feelings (hissing radiators, for example). Plenty of family drama on both planes of existence as all beings hope to be freed from their pasts.
  • The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai (Viking; ISBN: 9780525426684; July 2014): Although not really a renovation story, this novel is centered on an old house and includes family secrets. As the younger members of the Devohrs family uncover their home's deep history, they begin to gain perspective on their own privileged life. The novel starts in the 1990s and moves back in time, so the mysteries of the present are eventually revealed in the past. A quirky family drama with elements of suspense and hauntings.
Mysteries under the Rafters

  • The Hidden Girl by Louise Millar (Atria; ISBN: 9781476760094; August 2014): Breaking the mold, Hannah and Will Riley actually buy their rundown country house and set about getting it into shape so they'll be ready to adopt a child and start the family they've always dreamed of. All goes fairly smoothly until a major Suffolk snowstorm isolates Hannah in the house while Will is in London. With no electricity and spotty cell reception, Hannah is already a bit freaked out. But when she suspects that she's no longer alone in the house, she begins to fear for her life. This is a creepy psychological thriller.
  • The Qualities of Wood by Mary Vensel White (Authonomy; ISBN: 9780007523580; June 2014): When Nowell and Vivian Gardiner moved into his late-grandmother's country house, hoping to renovate it for sale, the couple was looking forward to a quiet life in a small town. What they found instead was the body of a 17-year-old girl and a whole lot of secrets. This character-driven mystery reveals its clues slowly, building the tension.
  • A High-End Finish by Kate Carlisle (Signet; ISBN: 9780451469199; November 2014): Jane Hennessey inherited her California Victorian from her grandmother and hired her best friend and contractor Shannon Hammer to help transform the house into a hotel. Ruining her manicure became the least of her worries when the body of a real estate agent is found on another job site and Shannon is accused of murder. This is a fun cozy mystery with interesting characters, strong women, and maybe even a little romance.

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All content and photos (except where noted) copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads 2008-2014. All rights reserved.



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