20 February 2021

Weekend Cooking: What's New in My Kitchen

Happy Saturday! Have you hit the famed (or should I say "infamous") COVID wall? I think I did last week, but I've climbed over it and have safely reached the other side. Ugh. I'm so ready for winter to be over and to be able to see my friends again. Enough whining because I know I don't have it anywhere near as bad as many people in Texas have it. My thoughts are with Texans; I hope they see the other side of this soon.

Let's take a look at what's new in my kitchen this month.

Thoughts on Crockpot slow cookerSlow Cooker: I don't use my slow cooker every week, but I use it often enough that I would hate to be without it. My old low-tech, ceramic crock model was at least 25 years old. The last two times we used it, tried-and-true recipes needed at least an extra hour to cook to our liking. Plus, a few months ago we noticed a crack in the outside bottom of the crock; it hasn't gone through to the inside yet, but it's clearly just a matter of time.

I did a bunch of research into the newer smart slow cookers, but in the long run, I just wanted a basic model that could also saute/brown. I ended up getting the same Crock Pot brand model that Jackie did because it has the features I wanted and not much more. Note that the New York Times recommends Hamilton Beach slow cookers, but I've not had good luck with that brand. YMMV.

Thoughts on Instant Pot Air Fryer LidAir Fryer (kind of): For a long while now, I've been curious about why there is so much love for air fryers. I haven't been very tempted because we don't actually eat much fried food at all. But after I reviewed that air fryer cookbook a while back and learned that the gadgets did much more than cook frozen fish sticks, I wanted to give one a try. I just didn't want to actually own another appliance or to spend the money.

However, when a neighbor said she had almost brand new Instant Pot air fryer lid that she was trying to sell for half price, I took the bait. She got rid of the lid because she just wasn't using it. I decided this was my chance to experiment.

Here's what we made and what we thought. We made sweet potato oven fries, roasted broccoli, and cooked unthawed frozen raw shrimp. All three dishes were cooked perfectly and in very little time. I'm not convinced, however, that the food was better in the air fryer than when made more conventionally. We did like the speed and the fact that the air fryer did not heat up the kitchen (we were thinking ahead to the summer and our lack of air-conditioning). Our final verdict is this. We'll keep the lid for about 6 months. If we don't really use it, we'll sell it for half of what we paid for it or just give it away.

Thoughts on Skinnytaste Meal PrepNewish Skinnytaste Cookbook: I finally made it to the top of the library hold list for Skinnytaste Meal Prep. While I'm not much of a meal prepper (despite being a meal planner), I love Skinnytaste and wanted to see Gina Homolka's new recipes. So far I've made two recipes from the "Hearty Salads" chapter, which we had for lunches. The Cold Soba Sesame Noodles were delicious and really quick to pull together. I made the recipe on a Sunday and we ate it for lunch the following two days. The salad held up and was really, really good.

The other salad I made was Cauliflower Tabbouleh Bowls (recipe below), which was also a hit. (I put the salad in a divided glass container just for the photo below.)

I have a ton of recipes marked to try (Broccoli Farro Bowls, Chicken Black Bean Burritos, Stuffed Acorn Squash, Lentil Soup with Bacon, and Puff Pastry Spinach Pie, for example). Skinnytaste Meal Prep has a lot of advice about cooking ahead and using your freezer, but you don't have to be interested in meal prep to use this cookbook. I like the book enough that I'll likely buy a copy when I have to return the one I have to the library. Note that each recipe is marked to let you know if it's quick, vegetarian, gluten free, dairy free, or freezer friendly and whether you can use your pressure cooker, air fryer, or slow cooker. Recommended!

Cauliflower Tabbouleh Bowls with Chickpeas and Hummus

Cauliflower Tabbouleh from SkinnytasteServes 4

  • 1 pound cauliflower florets
  • 1 cup peeled, seeded, and diced cucumber
  • 2 tablespoons finely diced red onion
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint leaves
  • 1/2 cup diced tomato
  • 1/2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 4 teaspoons red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 (15-ounce) cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained
  • 1/2 cup store-bought hummus
Place half of the cauliflower in a food processor and pulse until it has the texture of rice. Don't over process or it will get mushy. Set aside and repeat with the remaining cauliflower. (Makes 4 cups.)

Place the riced cauliflower in a large bowl and add the cucumber, onion, parsley, mint, tomato, olive oil, lemon juice, vinegar, and salt. Toss well and refrigerate until well chilled

Make the bowls: Divide the cauliflower tabbouleh, chickpeas, and hummus among 4 bowls or airtight containers. You can assemble them separately and combine on the fly or use meal prep containers with 3 compartments. Keeps in the refrigerator for up to 4 days

Skinny Scoop: for the best taste and quality, it's better to make the cauliflower rice from scratch rather than using packaged since you're eating this raw. Packaged cauliflower can sit for a while before being purchased and isn't as fresh and crisp.

BFR's Notes: I didn't peel or seed the Persian cucumber I used. I couldn't find fresh mint at the store last week, so left it out. I forgot to add the salt, but we didn't really miss it. Recipe shared in the context of review; all rights remain with the original copyright holder.

Shared with Weekend Cooking, hosted by Marg at The Intrepid Reader (and Baker)

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01 February 2021

A Dozen Books; Or What I Read in Late January

Happy February! As I mentioned on Saturday, I know I've been little seen on social media as of late, but that suits my current needs. Still, I wanted to share what I've read and listened to since my last summary. If you follow me on Goodreads, then you've already seen my thoughts on these books. Thanks to the publishers, audiobook publishers, and/or Libro.fm for the review copies.

Review of Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder by T. A. WillbergMarion Lane and the Midnight Murder by T. A. Willberg (Park Lane; Dec. 29): Fun mystery/fantasy set in a secret, underground investigation agency in 1950s London. Unsolved crimes, mysterious letters, leftover and unused technology from World War II, and a closed-room-type murder. Can Marion Lane solve the crime, keep her job, and save her innocent colleagues before it's too late? This was good escape reading, with a clever concept and unique gadgets, though the plotting could have been tighter. The audiobook was adequately read by Karen Cass. Her pace was little quick, but she was nicely expressive.

Review of Nick by Michael Farris SmithNick by Michael Farris Smith (Little, Brown; Jan 5): I enjoy books that reimagine classics or are set in the same universe as a well-known novel. In this case, Smith creates the backstory for Nick Carraway (of The Great Gatsby fame) from his Midwest childhood, through World War I, and back to the States, where he eventually ends up in Long Island in the cottage next to Jay Gatsby. The story itself, especially of the war in France and in the trenches, is well done. The section that takes place in New Orleans is perhaps less successful. What's more, I'm not quite sure the book informs or expands on Fitzgerald's original. The good news is that Robert Petkoff did an amazing job as narrator (see my thoughts at AudioFile Magazine).

Review of Grounds for Murder by Tara LushGrounds for Murder by Tara Lush (Crooked Lane, Dec. 8). This first in a new series is set on a small island off the coast of Florida. When Lana Lewis, an award winning newspaper reporter, needs a fresh start, she returns to her home town to take over the coffee shop opened by her late mother. When her best barista quits and then is found murdered near the cafe's back door, Lana finds herself on the short list of suspects. Lush sets up a fun a cozy mystery, complete with a cute dog, an even cuter police chief, a rival coffee shop, and variety of local characters. Lana, of course, can't help but get involved with hunting down clues and with getting to know Chief Noah. Recommended for coffee lovers and light mystery fans.

Review of People Like Her by Ellery LloydPeople Like Her by Ellery Lloyd (Harper; Jan. 12). A contemporary thriller that focuses on a mommy blogger/Instagrammer who has hit it big. Emmy is a master at creating the illusion of being perfectly imperfect, so her millions of followers can believe she is just like them. Between sponsored content and photos that show her "messy" house or "unkempt" hair, Emmy gives off-the-cuff advice online and at live events. She and her husband, Dan (a one-trick novelist), live off her income and pride themselves on maintaining their privacy. What happens when that privacy is breached and personal photos begin to appear online and they acquire a stalker out to teach Emmy a lesson for perceived offenses? Though the plot was a bit draggy in places, the book does make you wonder about the safety of real-life mega influencers. The thriller part was creepy and there was at least one twist I didn't see coming. (For my thoughts on the audiobook, see AudioFile Magazine).

Review of Shiver by Allie ReynoldsShiver by Allie Reynolds (Putnam; Jan. 19). For her debut novel, Allie Reynolds draws on what she knows--competitive snowboarding--to set the scene for this closed-room-type thriller set in the French Alps. Ten years after a tragic competitive snowboarding season left one woman dead and other paralyzed, Milla receives an invitation to meet at the remote ski resort during the preseason to reunite with her ex-teammates. Right from the start, Reynolds paints the scene of cold, isolation, and danger, though the five friends are focused on each other more than their surroundings. Within hours, however, the group begins to suspect that there is more to this reunion than just finding closure, especially after their cell phones are stolen. Mysterious sights, sounds, and smells put them on edge, until they begin to fear for their lives. Who really invited them to the chalet and will any of them survive the weekend? The mystery is nicely set up, with a few good red herrings and revealed secrets. The story is told by Milla and alternates between then and now. I particularly liked the sections dealing with snowboarding. Good escape reading. (For my thoughts on the audiobook, see AudioFile Magazine).

Review of Tales from the Hinterland by Melissa AlbertTales from the Hinterland by Melissa Albert (Flatiron; Jan. 12). These dark tales are perfect for winter reading. Although the stories in this collection are set in the same universe as The Hazel Wood, you don't have to have read the novel to enjoy these creepy fairy-tale-like stories. I don't often read collections straight through, but I was totally caught up in these stories -- they have just right about of darkness. The stories with a moral (for example, be careful of what you wish for) don't hit you over the head with their lessons, and the illustrations (mostly black and red) are gorgeous.

Review of Icebound by Andrea PitzerIcebound by Andrea Pitzer (Scribner; Jan. 12). I love these kinds of books! In this well-researched book we learn all about the expeditions led by William Barents, a Dutch explorer who attempted find a northern route to Asia in the late 1500s. He sailed farther north than any other Westerner at the time, fending off the fabled (for the crew) white bears, getting trapped in ice, and facing bitter cold. On the last trip, Barents and his team were forced to spend a winter with dwindling supplies in a hut, they built from wood "borrowed" from their ship. Staying warm, finding food, staving off scurvy, and keeping sane over the long sunless months was amazing in itself. In the spring, however, the men realized they had to abandon their iced-in ship and try to make it home in a couple of small boats. Fascinating details about mutiny, early thoughts on polar ecology, issues with nutrition, confrontations with polar bears, and more. As I often do with nonfiction, I both read and listened to this gripping real-life story. Fred Sanders did an excellent job with the narration, keeping my total attention. Note that my listening experience was much enhanced by being able to follow the voyages on the maps included with the print/digital book.

Review of The Fortunate Ones by Ed TarkingtonThe Fortunate Ones by Ed Tarkington (Algonquin; Jan. 5). I really liked this coming-of-age story set mostly in Nashville about Charlie, a poor, fatherless boy living on the wrong side of town with his pretty mother and wannabe singer aunt. Charlie's prospects change when his mother gets a job being the "helper" of a rich woman. The job comes with definite perks: Charlie and his mother now live in the pool house of the wealthy family and Charlie attends a prestigious private school on scholarship. Charlie also befriends Vanessa and Jamie, the twins who live in the big house. Charlie's most significant new relationship, though, is with Archer, a fellow student who is tapped to guide Charlie through the intricacies of school life. Archer ends up teaching Charlie much more than the school fight song, helping him learn to live among the rich and privileged. This is an engrossing read that examines boyhood friendship, first love, the choice between following what's expected and following one's own dreams, truths and secrets, rich and poor, white and black. Excellent story and highly recommended. (For my thoughts on the audiobook, see AudioFile Magazine).

Review of The Age of Wood by Roland EnnosThe Age of Wood by Roland Ennos (Scribner; Dec. 1). I really enjoyed this fascinating retelling of human evolution that puts trees and wood at the hub of our physical and cultural and technological changes over the last 3 million years or so. As a student of human evolution (I have a PhD), I was interested in Ennos's tweaking of the focus from fire, stone, iron, and bronze through to silicone to our dependence on wood throughout our history, even unto today. His well-though-out arguments include everything from politics (the role of trees in starting the US Revolutionary War) to biology (the development of typical primate traits, such as nails instead of claws) to migration and travel (boats, wheels) and to shelter (even today's houses are still framed in wood or wood products). If you're a student of human evolution, this book will give you much to think about. But in any case, it will make you appreciate the trees and wood products that are part of your everyday life. As is often the case with nonfiction, I both read and listened to this book. (For my thoughts on the audiobook, see AudioFile Magazine).

Review of The Heiress by Molly GreeleyThe Heiress by Molly Greeley (William Morrow; Jan. 5). I generally like books that retell classics or reimagine a fuller life for minor characters. In this book, Molly Greeley turns the spotlight on Anne de Bourgh, the daughter of Lady de Bourgh and the "promised from birth" bride to Mr. Darcy, introduced in Austen's Pride & Prejudice. While the general concept of the novel was good and it was fun to get glimpses of Anne's male cousins and Elizabeth Bennett through her eyes, the novel didn't work for me on a number of levels. Note that the next few sentences hint at some minor spoilers. Here are my negative thoughts in short form: There was not a strong enough driving force to keep me invested in Anne's ultimate fate, which was foreshadowed fairly early on. I would have liked to have seen more direct confrontations between Anne and her mother. Anne's "cure" from her lifelong affliction was in and of itself believable, but the fact that she was so easily able to move on from it did not seem so believable. I questioned some of Anne's choices, especially since she made a major one without consulting her solicitor. Though she reconnected with the Darcys, I think there was a missed opportunity for Anne to have a relationship with Lizzy, especially given Anne's newfound thoughts about feminism. Finally, the ending was a little hokey for me, though it did serve as a means to let us know what happened to various characters. The audiobook was very well read by Ell Potter, whose expressive performance highlighted Anne's transformation and picked up on the various characters' personalities.

Review of The Narrowboat Summer by Anne YoungsonThe Narrowboat Summer by Anne Youngson (Flatiron; Jan. 26). What a charming and fun story. When Eve and Sally cross paths along the canal and, though strangers, decide to rescue a howling dog who's locked in a narrowboat, they had no idea their lives were about to change forever. After meeting the boat's (and the dog's) owner, the two women, for a number of reasons, agree to take the boat through the canals of England to get it serviced. Meanwhile the owner must undergo some medical treatment. The slow trip through England, the people the women meet, their growing confidence with controlling the boat and going through the locks, and their own personal growth won me over. It made me wish for just such a summer.

Review of The Divines by Ellie EatonThe Divines by Ellie Eaton (William Morrow; Jan. 19) This dual-time period coming-of-age story worked on some levels and didn't on others. In the 1990s Jo was a student at an elite private girl's school in England, where she was sometimes one of the cool girls and sometimes not. Even among friends, all the girls experienced at least some level of bullying, but for those who were at all different, bullying was the norm and done out in the open. On her honeymoon decades later, Jo impulsively visits the now-defunct school's campus, and from there, unresolved issues, relationships, regrets, and memories bubble up, haunting her and her marriage for years. Much of this story had a feeling of truth. Girls can be so mean to each other. But do school authorities, even those who work in a private school for the very rich, really allow this much blatant meanness and disregard for their teachers and the rules? What do I know as an American who went to (albeit a small one) public school in more innocent time? Jo's relationship with her husband was also equally believable and not. He seemed a little too perfect, and she seemed to have hidden way more than she needed to. I get why she didn't want to confess all her childhood sins, but she seemed to share very little with him of what happened that final year at the school and the tragedy that occurred. I'm not sorry I listened to this, especially because Imogen Church did such a great job with the narration -- getting the accents, the voices, the attitudes just right.

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30 January 2021

Weekend Cooking: Books in My January Kitchen

4 books for cooks and foodiesHi friends. Sorry I've been so absent lately, but we've been trying to set in place our 2021 goals and changes, and they have pretty much taken over most of my energy this month. Nothing bad going on at all, just shaking it up a bit. I'll try to write a catch-up post in February to clue you in, but for now, social media is not at the top of my mind.

Enough with the vague explanations . . . today I have a mishmash of thoughts on cookbooks and food-related reading that came my way in January. I'm going to start with my favorite.

4 books for cooks and foodiesIna Garten's latest cookbook is Modern Comfort Food (it came out last October from Clarkson Potter). I love Ina Garten and this book doesn't disappoint. Our favorite recipe so far is the Crispy Chicken with Lemon Orzo (shown here), which was super quick to put together and really delicious. The recipe can be found over on Food 52. Also good was the Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Chipotle Orange Butter. I went ahead and made the entire composed butter recipe, using a full stick of butter, and popped the leftovers in the freezer for the next time I roast sweet potatoes. If you're an Ina Garten fan, you'll want to pick up a copy of the cookbook or at least check it out of the library. Vegetarians and vegans will definitely want to borrow before buying.

4 books for cooks and foodiesNext up is a book I was curious about because, as you know, I jumped on the meal-planning bandwagon several years ago. I've found planning to be been especially important during COVID, when it's just not worth running to the store to pick up random ingredients whenever the mood hits. Instead, we've been very consciously ordering curbside pickup or delivery and limiting our in-store shopping. I thought I could pick up a few tips in 100 Days of Real Food Meal Planner by Lisa Leake (William Morrow, Dec. 2020). If you are completely new to meal planning or are having trouble getting in the groove, then this and other books by Leake will probably be a big help. Note that this planner is mostly a workbook. It contains some good tips (though not everyone is in a position to eat mostly locally produced foods) and a few one-pot recipes. The bulk of the book consists of 52 perforated pages with space to plan your dinners and create shopping lists for an entire year. Many people will find this a godsend and to be very useful. I, however, have already found my rhythm, so I plan to give my copy to a friend who asked me for some organizational help.

4 books for cooks and foodiesI don't generally review diet or fitness books in this space for many reasons, but I was curious about two books that came out this month. The first is Fast This Way by Dave Asprey (Harper Wave, Jan. 19). Dave Asprey, if you don't know, is the name behind the Bulletproof brand of diet and nutrition supplements, bulletproof coffee, and gadgets. Note that I don't really know much about Asprey, have never used his products, and have never tasted bulletproof coffee. Nevertheless, I downloaded a review copy of Fast This Way because I wanted to know more about intermittent fasting, which has, in fact, gotten some positive reactions from the medical community. Unfortunately, the first pages of the book included a description of a spiritual quest, which made me (don't hate me) immediately put the book down. Perhaps there is good, solid medical and scientific data in this book, but I was turned off from reading more. Your mileage may vary . . . if you give this book a try, let me know what you thought.

4 Books for Cooks and FoodiesThe final book I looked through (meaning I didn't read every single word) is Abby Langer's Good Food, Bad Diet (Simon & Schuster, Jan. 5). Langer, a registered dietitian working in Toronto, is not out to tell you to ban carbs, eat all the fats, go low fat, become a vegan, or do anything else. Her hope is to dispel the ideas that the only good woman is a thin woman and that only the ultra skinny are healthy and happy. Her goal is to change people's (sadly, mostly women) negative relationship with food and the scale. Thus she encourages readers to work toward good physical and mental health, even while enjoying a few chocolate cookies when the mood strikes. That said, she does encourage people to obtain a healthy weight. Is this contradictory? Perhaps. But her principal focus is to move her readers past the diet culture and change their relationship with food. Langer believes this is the only way people can reach their own individual set weight--balancing a full range of food choices with a good medical checkup. Although there are no earth-shattering revelations here, if you have issues around food and eating or have struggled with dieting, you might want to give this one a try.

Shared with Weekend Cooking, hosted by Marg at The Intrepid Reader (and Baker)

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16 January 2021

Weekend Cooking: The Instant Pot Bible: The Next Generation by BruceWeinstein and Mark Scarbrough

Review of Instant Pot Bible: The Next Generation by Bruce Weinstein and Mark ScarbroughI had every intention to write and post this review last week. But after all the events that happened at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, I really just didn't have it in me to post a cookbook review.

No worries, though, because Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough's Instant Pot Bible: The Next Generation (thanks to Voracious Books and the Voracious Ambassador Program for the review copy) can be used all year round.

Let me start with a little background. I've been a pressure cooker fan since the 1990s, relying on my stove top model until about--what?--10 years ago when the electric versions became readily available and readily affordable. I'm still a fan, and have two electrics and my original stove-top pot. I cook under pressure at least once a week.

I was really excited to see a new Instant Pot cookbook from Weinstein and Scarbrough. They've written many cookbooks, have been nominated for James Beard Awards, and have won an IACP award. They know what they're talking about.

The Instant Pot Bible: The Next Generation has (as the cover says, 350 new recipes, ranging from breakfasts and snacks to main dishes, sides, and desserts. The recipes are extremely family friendly, appealing to a wide variety of tastes. For each recipe, the authors have indicated whether it is appropriate for a vegetarian, gluten-free, or vegan diet.

Review of Instant Pot Bible: The Next Generation by Bruce Weinstein and Mark ScarbroughThings I like about the recipes: easy to find ingredients, clear step-by-step instructions, tips and notes to help you succeed, and directions for the full range of Instant Pot (electric pressure cooker) sizes. I appreciate the "Beyond" boxes, which contain variations, serving tips, and/or ways to use leftovers.

In addition, Weinstein and Scarbrough include recipes to help you learn new techniques, like pot-in-pot cooking, baking, poaching, and stacked cooking. They also help you learn to use models that include an air-fryer lid.

Things I need to point out: The cookbook contains very few photographs of the finished dishes, and these are all found in a single color insert section. Some of the recipes would be just as easy and maybe even quicker if made on the stove top in a conventional pot or saucepan. This is a personal issue for me. I love my pressure cookers, but I don't use them for every possible dish. On the other hand, I can imagine several situations in which being able to cook almost everything in a single electric small appliance could be a bonus (RV camping, studio apartment, for example).

Finally, for a couple of the recipes I tried (not all), I cut the time at pressure by a couple of minutes to get the results that suit our tastes. How did I know to do this? Experience. If you cook something in your pressure cooker and the veggies are too soft, then next time cut the time by a minute or two and see if you're happier. As with all new techniques and skills, there is a learning curve.

I cooked quite a bit out of Weinstein and Scarbrough's The Instant Pot Bible: The Next Generation. Usually I followed the directions exactly, but in some cases, I used their recipes as inspiration. I made the Lemon, Baby Kale, and Goat Cheese Risotto (except we used Parmesan cheese instead), Balsamic Beef Stew (a winner, with no tweaks), Millennial-Friendly Pasta e Fagioli Soup, Grandmother-Friendly Potato Soup (with the called-for cabbage), and Ground Beef and Lentil Soup. I'm curious about making some of the desserts and the casseroles.

Review of Instant Pot Bible: The Next Generation by Bruce Weinstein and Mark ScarbroughRecommendation: I recommend The Instant Pot Bible: The Next Generation by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough for anyone looking for easy and doable recipes for their electric pressure cooker, and especially those who may be totally new to the Instant Pot. It's also a good resource for experienced users wishing to learn new tricks for their beloved appliance.

The recipe I'm sharing today is for Spiced Poached Pears, which I picked because it's vegan and gluten-free and could easily be adapted to conventional cooking if you don't have a pressure cooker. I'm giving the directions for 5- to 8-quart Instant Pots. The authors suggest a bold red wine or even a sweet Riesling if you don't have cider on hand. Weinstein and Scarbrough serve the pears and syrup over ice cream.

Note: I haven't yet made this recipe. Thanks to Voracious and the Voracious Ambassador Program for the review copy. The scans and recipe are used in the context of a review; all rights remain with the original copyright holders.

Spiced Poached Pears
Serves 4

  • 3 1/2 cups unsweetened apple cider
  • 2 cups granulated white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 8 whole cloves
  • 1 small orange
  • One 3-inch cinnamon stick
  • 4 firm, ripe bosc or Anjou pears, stemmed, peeled, cored, and halved from top to bottom
Stir the cider, sugar, and vanilla extract in the insert until the sugar dissolves. Push the "stem" ends of the cloves into the orange and drop it into the pot. Add the cinnamon stick too. Nestle the pear halves into this liquid and lock the lid on the pot. Set the pot to pressure cook on high (with the valve closed) for 4 minutes with the keep warm setting off. Hit start.

When the pot has finished cooking, turn it off and let the pressure return to normal naturally, about 25 minutes. Unlatch the pot and open the cooker. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the pear halves to a heat-safe storage bowl (do not use plastic). Remove and discard the orange, any cloves that have fallen out, and the cinnamon stick.

Press saute, set on high. Stir constantly as the sauce comes to a simmer. Continue cooking, stirring almost constantly until the sauce has reduced to a thick syrup, about half the volume it was after you removed the pears, about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and pour the hot syrup over the pears. Cool to room temperature, cover, and store in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Serve cold or at room temperature.

Shared with Weekend Cooking, hosted by Marg at The Intrepid Reader (and Baker)

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04 January 2021

What I Read Last Week

Hello, all. Here is another of my periodic "what have I read lately" posts. I skipped a December roundup, but my thoughts on everything I read in 2020 are available on GoodReads, where I'm BethFishReads.

What to read right nowOne of Our Own by Jane Haddam (Minotaur: Nov. 2020; Dreamscape: 9 hr, 6 min). This is the end of a long series featuring an ex-FBI agent, his wife, and the members of his Philadelphia Armenian American neighborhood. Haddam finished this book just before she died. Note: because I was the copyeditor for the first several entries in this series, the Demarkian books have always held a special place in my heart.

Although this isn't the strongest Demarkian book, Haddam did a fine job concluding the series. Most of the story arcs reached a satisfying ending, though (rightly so) not everything was tied up in a neat bow. I'm sorry to say goodbye to the returning characters whose stories I've followed since the first book was published.

As in most of the Demarkian books, Haddam addresses contemporary sociocultural/sociopolitical issues. In this case, she looks at inner city housing and a real estate magnate, immigration and ICE, foster care, culture clashes, and the changing nature of city neighborhoods. The mystery and side stories are well constructed, complex, and engrossing.

You'll want to start this series from the beginning so you can understand the dynamics between the main characters. For my thoughts on the audiobook, read by David Colacci, see AudioFile Magazine.

What to read right nowThe Children's Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin (Delacorte: Jan. 12; Random House Audio: 11 hr, 25 min). This is a well-researched, though fictionalized, account of the great 1888 blizzard, often referred to as the Children's Blizzard because it struck just when most schools in the upper Midwest were closing for the day. The majority of those schoolchildren failed to made it home or to a safe haven before the blinding snow engulfed them.

The focus of the novel is on two sisters who are schoolteachers in different towns. The women make very different choices for how to tend to the children in their care. We also meet a newspaper man who is forced to think about his role in enticing the unprepared to stake claims on the prairie, and a young girl who was sold by her mother to a childless couple and makes decisions based on her unique situation.

The storm came up so suddenly that people were simply caught unaware and unprepared on the open prairie, where they became lost in the blinding snow, eventually freezing to death. The novel conveys the horrors of the blizzard, why even seasoned settlers were surprised by the snow, and how the storm had lasting effects.

Cassandra Campbell performs the audiobook, adding to the drama and bringing the characters to life. Thanks to the publishers and Libro.fm for review copies in audio and digital media.

What to read right nowUnder the Alaskan Ice by Karen Harper (Mira: Dec. 2020; Harlequin Audio: 9 hr, 9 min). I was attracted to this book because of the premise of the mysterious unmarked private plane that crashes into a frozen Alaskan lake. What I didn't realize, though, was that this mystery had a heavy romance factor. That in and of itself would have been okay, but ultimately I had problems with the writing/style and put the book aside fairly early on.

My primary issue was the number of times the author asks the questions that should be left up to the engaged reader. For example, Harper has one of the characters think through a long list of questions about the plane: Why did it crash? Why now? Why here? and so on. The plotting should have made me ask those questions, without the prompting. This happens more than once. In addition, the young child was little too precocious for my tastes.

I'm a mystery fan and love an Alaskan setting, but this book just didn't click with me. Thanks to the publishers for audio and digital review copies.

What to read right nowSummerwater by Sarah Moss (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: Jan. 12 Macmillan Audio: 4 hr, 27 min). Written almost as linked short stories or vignettes, this slim novel, told over the course of one day, follows about a dozen people who are vacationing in a remote area of Scotland.

At the beginning of the day, which opens with a young mother taking a dawn run, each family is insular, hunkering down in their own cabins or following their own amusements. As we see the day progress through the eyes of different characters, we begin to view the temporary community of strangers as unique individuals, understanding their behavior from a variety of perspectives. By the end of the day, several groups have crossed paths, quarreled, or bonded . . .

The novel is beautifully written. Moss creates an uneasy atmosphere, building a sense of dread beneath what should be a relaxing summer day for the vacationers. This isn't an uplifting story, and some threads are left open-ended. But life isn't always bright and we can't predict how people are going to face their challenges.

The audiobook is read by Morven Christie, who does an excellent job conveying the author's style, building the tension, and subtly distinguishing between the characters. Highly recommended.

Thanks to the publisher and libro.fm for the audio review copy.

What to read right nowThe Effort by Claire Holroyde (Grand Central: Jan. 12; Hachette Audio: 10 hr, 38 min). What happens when a comet is destined to hit Earth? A secret international team is quickly cobbled together to try to figure out a way to deflect the comet's path. Meanwhile, a team of scientists is heading to the North Pole, with a poet and photographer in tow, to try to record the last vestiges of Arctic wildlife and the icy landscape before climate change finally wins.

We follow the individuals from these two groups as the countdown to either the comet's impact or the comet's destruction occurs. We also see what happens afterward.

I liked the premise and the different ways people reacted to the news of the impending death of the world as we know it. This isn't an action-packed story but more a slow burn as individuals rise to the occasion or crumple under hopelessness. In addition, this isn't a feel-good story, but it does give us lots to think about.

This will not be the best book I'll read this year, but I'm glad I read it. This would be a good book club pick because readers will likely have differing opinions about the characters' actions. Worth your while.

The audiobook was read by Jay Ben Markson, whose sense of pacing was good match for this book. Thanks to the publishers for the digital and audio copies of this book.

What to read right nowThe Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage (Back Bay: 2001; Hachette Audio: 8 hr, 15 min). This is a re-issue of a book originally published in 1967 and my first time reading it. It is soon to be a movie.

Set in the 1920s in Montana, this is the story of two brothers, aged 38 and 40. The older, Phil, has always been thought of as the smarter, tougher, more sociable of the two. George is stocky and quiet. The brothers run a successful cattle ranch, living together in their childhood home, which their parents left them when they moved to Salt Lake City.

Strict routines are kept until George suddenly, and without telling Phil, marries Rose, a widow from town, bringing her out to the ranch to make a new home for her and her son. Teenage Peter is bookish, somewhat effeminate, and has trouble connecting with others, but George hopes to be a good stepfather. Phil concocts myriad reasons for disliking and distrusting Rose and Peter and is determined to break up the marriage so life can get back to normal.

Savage writes with power and insight. He provides just enough of the characters' history, through minimal backflashes and memories, to give foundation to the events that unfold after George brings Rose into their home. Chilling and moving. In a way, Savage reminds me of Mishima: through sparse prose, a full and lush story is told. The Power of the Dog will likely be on my best of 2021 list.

This is my first Savage book, but now I must read the rest of his work.

The unabridged audiobook was brilliantly read by Chad Michael Collins. This is my first experience with him, and I was taken in by his pacing, his delivery style, and his ability to build a mood. The afterword (do not miss this!) is read by Annie Proulx, who provides context and thoughts gleaned from several close readings.

Thanks to the publisher and Libro.fm for the audio review copy.

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