Monthly Archives: May 2011

And Back to Tudor England We Go…

So, late last night I finished reading a book that I had been entranced by, Dissolution by C.J. Sansom.  This is the first in an historical English mystery series featuring attorney Matthew Shardlake, who is an appointed commissioner (read: investigator) on behalf of Lord Thomas Cromwell.  I had gotten wind of these books when I read a review for the fifth book in the series, Heartstone, and thought to myself “damn, I need to read this book!” Alas, when I learned it was part of a series I realized that I must go back and start at the beginning (that’s just how I am).

Dissolution follows Commissioner Shardlake in 1537 to the Scarnsea Monastery in the south of England, where there has been murder and many other ill-gotten things going on, much to the chagrin of Lord Cromwell, who led the reformation.  Initially, Shardlake is there to investigate the brutal murder of the previous Commissioner appointed by Cromwell to investigate the Abbey.  However, as the story progresses, additional murders and intrigue turn up that lead us even deeper into a mystery that has ties back to Anne Boleyn and the false charges levied against her by Cromwell.  I cannot say much more on the storyline, as I do not want to give anything away that could impact your enjoyment of this lovely story.

Ultimately, not only was the excellent mystery part of why I liked this book so much, but also the writing style.  Although the book takes place in the mid-1500’s, it was a breeze to read and fascinating. The storylines and characters were so tightly written and everything occurred for a reason.  I also enjoyed that I did NOT see who was coming as the killer.  I was pretty blown away at how well Sansom did the reveal and the wrap-up.  I will definitely be reading the remainder of this series, and if you’re looking for a good historical mystery, I highly suggest you check this out!

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Recipe Day! Beer-Brined, Garlic Crusted Pork Chops on the Grill

Several people who I’m friends with on Facebook have asked for this recipe, which I’ve made twice now in a 7 day period after discovering it through the Epicurious app on my iPhone. (Side note, I am not getting paid in any way by Epicurious, but their app is excellent — you can search for about a million different recipes and they cull them from so many different sources and magazines, etc., that it makes looking for something really easy.)  Also, I am a huge fan of pork chops, which are a really reasonably priced protein, and taste great on the grill. They are also so quick that it makes cooking this meal a true pleasure.
Ingredients:
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 cups dark lager beer (once I used a Guinness and once I used a pale ale)
  • 1/4 cup coarse salt (I used kosher salt)
  • 3 tablespoons (packed) dark brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons mild-flavored (light) molasses (I used Aunt Jemima Lite syrup)
  • 1 cup ice cubes
  • 6 1- to 1 1/4-inch-thick center-cut bone-in pork chops
  • 7 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons dried sage leaves (I didn’t use sage either time I made the recipe, as I didn’t have any on hand)

Preparation:

1.  Combine the 2 cups water, beer, 1/4 cup coarse salt, sugar, and molasses in large bowl. Whisk the liquid until the salt and sugar dissolve.

2.  Stir in ice.

3.  Place the pork chops in large resealable plastic bag, and pour beer brine over pork chops.  Seal the plastic bag and refrigerate the chops for at least 4 hours.

4.  Once you’re ready to start grilling, prepare your grill and pre-heat it using medium-high heat.

5.  Remove the pork chops from beer brine, lay them on a paper towel and pat dry.

6.  In a small bowl, mix the garlic, pepper, 2 teaspoons salt, (and sage, if you’re using it) in small bowl. Rub garlic mixture over both sides of pork chops.

7.  Grill the pork chops over medium heat until the instant-read thermometer inserted into center of chops registers 145°F to 150°F, about 10 minutes per side, occasionally moving chops to cooler part of rack if burning. Transfer chops to platter; cover with foil, and let stand 5 minutes. Serve.

Read More http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Beer-Brined-Grilled-Pork-Chops-105298#ixzz1Loo2OiYB

Pitchers and Catchers Report — It’s Time to Play Catch-Up…..

Sadly, I have not kept up on my book reviews, which is both maddening (for me) and distressing (for you, fair readers!). Do I have any type of valid excuse? Nope, not really. Other than that I read fast, and have not been good about sitting down shortly after finishing a book to gather my thoughts about it. Unfortunately, life, reading, knitting, cooking, and my other blog have gotten in the way of posting on a regular basis.  In fact, it is with shame that I report that I have read fourteen, yes, fourteen books, since my last post.  Ultimately, after thinking about it and letting the idea of how best to get caught up marinate, it has come to be — a quick, catch-up blog that gives a speedy review of the books and let’s me start fresh.  Otherwise, it would be like starting the to-do list with 20 huge projects on it and you look at it and realize that there’s no way in HELL you’ll ever get anywhere with it.  So, here goes!

Book #13 — Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (Literature/Fiction) — For the past few years, I had seen this particular tome at the bookstore, would pick it up and think to myself that I should read it, and then something else would catch my eye. and it would get put back on the shelf. Add in that the book takes place in a circus, and that I do not like clowns, and it was not tough to see why I wasn’t racing to read it.  However, this past spring the movie was being released featuring Reese Witherspoon, one of my favorite actresses.  After seeing clips and trailers, I decided to read the book and am I glad I did or what! I gave this book 5 of 5 stars.  The author grabbed my attention right away and held it throughout, keeping me up late following the saga of the main characters, the circus and of course, the animals.  Within about 50 pages, I found myself passionately caring about the characters and rooting for them and wanting the best for them, which, in my mind, is what a good book is all about.  I still have yet to see the movie, but definitely can say you have to read the book!

Book #14 — It’s All Relative by Wade Rouse (Memoir) — I read one of Rouse’s earlier memoirs about moving from St. Louis to small-town Michigan a few years back and was howling, absolutely howling, with laughter.  When I saw that he had a new book coming out, I immediately pre-ordered it on my Nook, waiting with eager anticipation for the day that it would download automatically at midnight of the release date.  As I started reading, Rouse delivered on his trademark witty, smart and gay humor, regaling me with stories of life with his life-partner, Gary, and growing up gay in Oklahoma.  After a couple of entries, the stories turned a little more serious as Rouse wrote of serious issues, i.e., coming out, family members’ deaths and his parents’ mortality.  (Obviously, those stories did not contain as much laughter as the other parts.)  I finished the book and had enjoyed it.  I gave it 4 of 5 stars, based on the strength of the author and his collective work.  Originally, I was going to give it 3 stars, as I did not laugh as much at this book as I did his previous work, and I realized that was me being silly.  The writing was great, the stories hilarious AND poignant and that when an author chooses to show us the sadder and more serious sides, those are the ones that we cherish.  I look forward to Rouse’s future works.

Book #15 — Clean by Dr. Alejandro Junger (Health/Non-Fiction) — I picked this book up after a friend from college posted on Facebook that she had been reading it.  Clean is the semi-biographical story of Dr. Junger and his health care program that involves eliminating certain foods from your diet, as they are toxic, and a cleanse program to improve your health.  It is based substantially on tenets of Eastern healing and talks primarily about how what we choose to put into our bodies shapes how we feel and live.  A must read for anyone with food allergies, health issues, stomach pain or my favorite diagnosis, IBS.

Book #16 — Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain (Essays/Memoir) — Most importantly, this is Off the Shelf Challenge Book #7! I’ll say right off the bat that I am a HUGE fan of Anthony Bourdain, his television show No Reservations, his previous books and his Twitter feed. He is ranchy and honest and funny (add in hot too — sorry, P!). I’d read each of his previous books and flown through them, sucking up every word he had about working in a restaurant, travels, and food all throughout the world.  When I saw that he was releasing Medium Raw last summer, I leapt on it the day it was released, started it and then put it down for about 10 months.  This book just did NOT grab me and hold my attention the way his previous books had, which saddened me greatly.  Mostly, I felt that the stories lacked a unifying theme and were just a bunch of essays that he had thrown together to fill his page requirement.  Does it make me hate Bourdain? Absolutely not.  I’ve just decided I’ll look before I leap when it comes to racing out to buy his next book.  I give Bourdain 3 of 5 stars.

Book #17 — The Keepsake by Tess Gerritsen (Mystery/Series) — Yay! Another Off the Shelf Challenge Book!!! #8! The Keepsake is the 7th book in the Rizzoli and Isles series by Gerritsen.  From the first moment I picked the book up I could not put it down and I simply devoured it — the mystery story was fantastic and gripping, and the development of the underlying characters was well-done.  Flat out, this book was a 5 of 5 stars.  Some authors after a few books featuring the same character get stale, but not Gerritsen.

Book #18 — The Little Friend by Donna Tartt (Literature/Fiction) — Off the Shelf Challenge Book #9 — This was the sophomore effort from Tartt who had penned The Secret History, one of my all-time favorite books.  The story was completely different from that featured in History and follows the main character, Harriet, as she investigates her brother’s mysterious death 12 years earlier when she was just a baby.  The book was at times horrifying, slow, maddening, filled with snakes and moments that made you want to reach through the pages, grab Harriet and shake her senseless while screaming “What do you think you’re doing!” The book is the favorite of one of my best friends and had come so highly recommended by many that I finally picked it up after having it on the shelf for a good 5 years? When I finished the book, I could not say if I had liked it or hated it.  In fact, I still cannot say which it is.  The book was prosaic and so well-written that if you read it solely for the writing you’ll do well.  The story, as it develops, is not one anyone would race out to read as it is not a “feel good” story.  But overall, I think the book is an important work in modern American literature, which is quite a statement.  I personally gave it 3 of 5 stars, mostly for story elements that I did not enjoy on a personal level.  If I was rating it by removing that, the book would have received 5 of 5 stars.  It’s like East of Eden.  You may just have to read this book.

Book #19 — Composed by Roseanne Cash (Memoir) — For years I’ve been a fan of Johnny Cash’s music and books and I recently started listening to Roseanne Cash’s albums.  Like her father, she is a talented singer/songwriter, her Twitter feed is hilarious and her book was well-written, and compelling.  Cash made me laugh and cry in the same book, and I cannot recommend her work enough.  5 of 5 stars!

Book #20 — Fatal Voyage by Kathy Reichs (Mystery/Series) — This is the 4th book by Reichs featuring Temperance Brennan, who many may know from the Fox TV show Bones.  As I’ve written in previous posts, there is not much similarity between the books and the TV show, other than the main character’s name.  However, both are thoroughly enjoyable.  This book revolves around Brennan investigating the cause of a commercial plane crash that  killed everyone on board, and leads her to uncovering a decades old cannibal club with prominent members.  As always, a good read and the character development was excellent.  4 of 5 stars.

Book #21 — The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson (Health/Non-Fiction) — This book was recommended to me by my brother, who has followed TPB eating plan for several years and dropped over 100 pounds.  The author essentially advocates the return to a hunter/gatherer eating lifestyle that focuses on lean meats, vegetables and certain fruits, while avoiding processed foods, which are insideously evil for our bodies and health.  As with Clean, it is a must read for anybody who has been diagnosed with food allergies, Celiac’s disease or IBS.  Following the TPB plan has changed my life in a distinctly positive way!  4 of 5 stars.

Book #22 — Juliet by Anne Fortier — I picked this book up after a college friend whose reading tastes I greatly respect read it and raved about it.  The story follows a young woman, Juliet, as she travels from the US to Italy to trace her family’s history and attempt to get to the bottom of her parents’ deaths and the “curse” that follows their family.  Legend has it that the curse formed the basis of the story of Romeo and Juliet and Juliet sets out to get to the bottom of it.  The book flashes between modern day and the 1300’s at the beginning of the legend.  The book was unique, well-written and I highly recommend it.  4 of 5 stars!

Book #23 — Sweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years Later by Francine Pascal (Tween Fiction) — When I heard that Pascal was publishing a book that followed the characters from the SVH books into adulthood, I knew I had to read it.  I had grown up reading the SVH books during my youth and was just plain curious to see how the old gang would fair into adulthood.  The book was whimsical and more nostalgic than anything else.  The writing was not great, the story was not well-developed and ultimately, what occured between the sisters at the end seemed far-fetched.  But isn’t that the whole point of the SVH books?  I think so.  2 of 5 stars, for the nostalgia alone is worth reading it!

Book #24 — Game of Thrones (Fire and Ice #1) by George R.R. Martin (Fantasy) — O.M.G.  This book was so damn good it’s going to get it’s own blog post in the next few days.  5 of 5 stars.  Absolutely amazing and I’ve heard the series only gets better.  If you haven’t read it, get it!

Book #25 — Ice Cold by Tess Gerritsen (Mystery/Series) — Off the Shelf Challenge #10 — This book is the 8th in the series featuring Rizzoli and Isles.  I personally did not like the mystery part of the story at all, as it dealt with a cult that involved kids, which is something that I do not like AT ALL! The furtherance of the character development and interpersonal dealings was the only reason that I kept reading the book, as I love the series and will continue to read it.  For me, this book was an abberation in what I’ve come to expect from Gerritsen.  3 of 5 stars.

Book #26 — Dead Reckoning by Charlaine Harris (Mystery/Fantasy/Series) — This book is the 11th in the series featuring Sookie Stackhouse, and the basis for the HBO show True Blood.  Every May Harris publishes a new book in the series and I immediately grab it up and read in a day or so, then spend the next 363 days whining about how I don’t have another Sookie for a whole year.  This year followed in exactly the same pattern and the story was GREAT.

And finally, Book #27 — The Pioneer Woman: From Black Heels to Tractor Wheels by Ree Drummond (Memoir) — This is the memoir book of a blogger that I read, http://www.thepioneerwoman.com, which is run by a city girl turned country girl who married a cattle rancher and picked up from the city to move to the middle of nowhere.  I was at the library, just about to check out, and the book caught my eye on the new releases shelf and I picked it up. Drummond’s writing is funny, witty, poignant and just the right amount of self-depricating.  She makes the reader long to live out on a cattle ranch, even when they’ve been born and bred in the city.  In this book, Drummond tells the story of meeting her husband, upheaving her entire life and her plans to move to Chicago to marry her love and live on a cattle ranch.  The book is a quick and enjoyable read, although it seemed a bit tedious at points. I attribute this more to the publisher’s page requirements than the author’s wordiness, as I’ve read her for quite some time and she’s a lovely writer. All in all, a quick and enjoyable read — 3 of 5 stars.

And now that we are all caught up on what I’ve been reading over the past 2 months, fair reader, I can promise you this — I do hope to be better at posting about my books on a regular basis.  More importantly, I realized that I committed to reading 30 books in the Off the Shelf Challenge and not just the 15 I thought that I had — whoops! Time to get my ass in gear and get moving on that bookshelf, because we are almost halfway through the year and I’m only 1/3 of the way done. My biggest problem is that there are far too many books to read and just too little time!

Until next time, happy reading:)

Springtime means Gardentime!

Well readers, it is above 35 degrees here in Chicago and it is actually sunny on this lovely Mother’s Day Sunday, which means it is now officially time to get started on the garden! YAY! YAY! YAY! One of the things that I love about spring and summer is working in the garden.  Yes, we live in the city, so it is small.  Yes, we share our yard with other neighbors, so our plot space is even more limited.  But that does not stop me from claiming my share of the yard and heading outside to work in the sun and grow some vegetables and herbs that we will enjoy throughout the summer and fall.

Last year, we definitely learned some lessons in our garden — the cucumber plant needed WAAAAY more room than we were initially told.  It choked out the smaller pepper plants around it, but when it yielded the cukes, we had a ton.  The poblano plant was on steroids.  It grew to about 5 feet tall and 3 feet wide, but we were blessed with poblanos through almost November.  Once that plant started to bloom there was no stopping it.  The bell peppers were great, but needed a bit more room, and I was thoroughly unimpressed with where we planted the sage.

Over the winter, Patrick and I have talked casually about how we want to do the garden this year, what we liked about last year and what we would like to change up this year.  I’ve consulted one of my most trusted tomes on the subject of gardening in Illinois, the book Month-by-Month Gardening in Illinois by James A. Fizzell, as well as my friend Tina’s blog, Squirrel Accorns.  This year, we are going to try square foot gardening, as discussed in the book All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew, and talked about by Tina on her blog (see above).

The biggest area that I’m using for our veggies is currently a pretty sad sight….we cleaned out most everything before winter hit, except for one sage plant that I left out of sheer laziness.  Ironically, it has started to bloom again, but it’s going to get the chopping block for now.  I’m almost embarrassed to share the picture of the current state of the garden, but hey, at least it will be a nice “before” picture.   I also plan on turning the soil a bit so it is getting primed the way I’d like it to be and ready to have the new plants dropped in.

See what I mean when I said the last vestiges of winter needed to be cleared?  Our shovel has been resting there since snowmageddon hit in February.  Before I could even really start to ready my area, which measures about 26″ deep by 14′ long, I had to remove the shovel (better not need that for a long time), pull out the leftover sage plant you can see, yank the weeds out that had already started their infiltration and remove the debris and former little bamboo fencing.

It may not look like much, but that actually took a ton of work, as I also decided to rake the remainder of last year’s mulch to throw away, so the soil will be nicer for planting.

Next up, I had to measure the spot, precisely, for my wood so I can purchase the lumber and create the “outline” for our square foot garden bed.  And last, but not least, I got the pitchfork out to dig out and turn over the soil.  All of a sudden (or more accurately, after each backbreaking dig into the earth, beautiful, dark soil emerged, practically screaming for new plants.

Halfway point shot — I had to take a break to interrupt a fight between Oscar and a squirrel and decided to get a shot of the contrast…

Oscar was NOT happy that I physically yanked him away from the fence to stop assaulting the squirrel in the next yard.  “But mom, that squirrel is public enemy #1!”

Finally, by the time I finished up today, the soil had all been turned, debris and mulch and last year’s sage is GONE, the exact measurements have been taken and I’m ready to hit up the lumber yard for my wood.

And no worries, those bricks are going to be a thing of the past as of tomorrow’s gardening session, too.  They’ve been there “outlining” the garden plot against the garage since I moved in and in prior years I’ve just worked with them since I didn’t want to offend anyone by changing something.  Unfortunately, the bricks are beyond crumbling, are in horrid shape and have seen the end of their useful purpose.  They are also, in my humble opinion, an eyesore. Hence, I’m tossing them.

Many may be wondering what the Hell gardening has to do with me attempting to lose weight and get healthier, which is ultimately the point of this blog, and to me, it’s pretty simple.  Gardening is great exercise, you use a ton of muscles, many of which you may not have known existed, and growing your own fruits, veggies and herbs is gratifying and a great way to ensure you eat healthy.  One of my favorite things in the summer is a fresh tomato right off the plant from my backyard.  Last year’s tomato crops fell pray to a disease, along with most people’s in northern Illinois, so we didn’t get much of them.  However, we had a great season for peppers and cucumbers, the herbs were wonderful and aromatic, and the satisfaction that comes from eating something that you grew yourself is pretty amazing.  Add in that for me, at least, gardening relieves stress, and it’s a no brainer. I truly enjoy being outside in the summer, eating the food that I’ve grown and hope to post lots more updates here as the weather warms up.

Yummy Bacon-Mushroom-Beer-Blue Cheese Steak Topping Recipe — YES PLEASE!

I’m trying, dear reader, to be better about posting on my blog on a much more regular basis. Perhaps not every day, but definitely more than once every fiscal quarter.  And while I was thinking about it this morning, a light bult went on above my head and I said “aha!” One of the things I can do through my blog is share recipes that I’ve tried and enjoyed — a bonus if they are healthy! So, here goes (along with the excitement of how I got to this recipe as well)….

Last week, Patrick and I were at Whole Foods picking up a last few things for our Easter feast (we had a delicious lamb shoulder that I grilled, in case you’re not my friend on Facebook — it was awesome).  As we passed by the butcher section of the store, there was a butcher standing in front of the meat case passing out steak samples — oh Hell yes I’ll be there for a quick bite of steak to get me through the rest of my errands.  Well, he had a delicious dipping sauce that accompanied it. And I do mean DELICIOUS — Patrick and I both wanted to stand there and just put our faces in the bowl of sauce it was so delicious. But out of some sense of decorum, we decided to instead ask how he made it.  He told us it was merely bacon, mushrooms, a dark lager, some heavy cream, and blue cheese. We questioned him a bit more about his preparation process, discussed making this tasty treat the remainder of our time in the store, and immediately got to the car and forgot what he had said about actual amounts of ingredients (though I did remember later it was one beer and 3-4 slices of bacon).  Side Note:  We both have iPhones and could easily have taken notes on what he was saying while standing in front of the butcher, but that would have been far too easy.

Fast forward to last night (Saturday).  We were having 2 of our couple friends over for some grilling and game playing and I wanted to make the same sauce we had sampled.  I figured I could pretty easily replicate the recipe, because it’s mostly about tasting it and with limited ingredients, not too hard.  So, before heading out of Oak Park after visiting my SIL yesterday, I popped in at their Whole Foods. Got everything I needed and headed home.  While on the highway, Patrick let me know we needed a few more things, so I stopped in at a second WF in the city by our house. As I was flying past the butcher section, I spotted the maker of this wonderful sauce out of the corner of my eye — I immediately shouted out “you!” and pointed at him and flew over with my cart to confirm the process of making this delish dish.  He told me I was one of many who had been requesting the recipe after last week….well, I took notes this time.

So, what I give you now, is the Bacon-Mushroom-Beer-Blue Cheese Steak Topping Sauce — it was a hit last night with our friends, and I was informed by many that it went great with the veggies and potatoes too.

Ingredients:

3-4 slices bacon (I used Oscar Mayer regular cut bacon), cut into small bits (easier for frying)

4 ounces mushrooms, diced (makes for easier cooking)

3T salted butter

1 bottle dark lager of your choice

Heavy cream — this will be to taste, and was approximately 1/4 cup for our recipe

Blue cheese — this will also be to taste, but I used about 6 ounces, crumbled.

Black Pepper — to taste.

Step One:  Melt your butter in the saucepan of your choice, add bacon and fry until cooked and crispy.

Step Two:  Remove the bacon from the pan and quickly add the mushrooms.  Cook thoroughly and until tender — this will vary based on the heat you use and the size of your mushroom bits, approximately 5 minutes.

Step Three:  Add the bacon back to the pan with the mushrooms, and pour the entire bottle of lager into the pan.  Turn the heat up to high and let it boil away and reduce down until all that’s left is your bacon and mushrooms, with a TINY bit of beer.

Step Four:  Stir in a tiny bit of heavy cream to thicken the mixture. (I’m sorry, no more pictures since I was trying to get everything done and my hands were too dirty to take pictures). But you’re all smart people and I’m sure can imagine how the next steps looked!

Step Five:  Remove the entire mixture from your pan and put it into either your food processor, or a bowl that you can use with your stick blender (I used my stick blender).  Food process/blend the mixture until it is a thick liquid.  Start mixing in the blue cheese in big spoonfuls and blend.  Taste frequently to make sure everything is tasting rich and yummy.  When using blue cheese, you don’t want the cheese to overpower everything else, but you also don’t want the beer to be all you taste if you use too little.

Step Six:  Slather all over your steak (or whatever you’re cooking) and enjoy!

I served this with a sirloin tip steak cut, grilled to medium.  Prior to grilling the steaks, I used the Char Crust Roasted Garlic Peppercorn Rub for a little bit of flavoring.  I also served grilled asparagus that had been marinated in garlic, ginger and soy sauce, and twice-baked potatoes.

Tonight, we are grilling beer-brined, garlic pork chops.  Assuming all turns out well, I’ll post the recipe for everyone to enjoy! Bon apetit!