Monday, November 30, 2009

"I cannot live without books." -Thomas Jefferson

In January of 2009, I set a goal to read two books a month throughout the year. In order to accomplish more with the limited time available to me, I began regularly visiting the public library and checking out books on CD. I accomplished so much more once I started taking advantage of my daily work commute, which is an hour round trip.

Now that December has arrived, I reflected on the books I have read this year, which will soon total 23 (just need to squeeze one more in this month!). Here are my top book picks out of the books I read this year:

Best Cross-Cultural Reads:
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan: Profound insights into the mother/daughter relationship as well as Chinese culture, Chinese history, and what it means to be an immigrant.

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri: Indian-American author Lahiri also astounds with her insightful glimpses into relationships of all kinds, but particularly those of family, and her examination of the meaning of exile and isolation.

Best Light Reads:
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert: A 30-something career-woman deals with her divorce and depression by spending a year living in Italy, India and Indonesia. In each place, she explores a different theme and writes a book based on what she learns and experiences. Who wouldn’t want to live that (vicariously)?

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver: The prominent writer Kingsolver buys a n old home on a fertile plot of land, moves her family to rural Missouri, and spends a year eating only what they can produce and grow themselves (or barter for with other locals). Anyone interested in the locavore movement will love reading about each season and how Kingsolver survived it all.

My Life in France by Julia Child: I listened to this one on CD, and it was delightful. Julia’s unique personality shines through as she describes in her own characteristic way her experiences moving to France as a middle-aged military wife, the sensual experience of eating her first French meal, her battle to perfect her technique as the only female chef at the Cordon Bleu, and finally her years-long effort to write a veritable "Bible" of French cooking.

Best Psychological Thriller:
Crime & Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky: Here is a thrilling murder-mystery with depth, that dares to question: What is the effect of isolation upon the human mind? If a crime is beneficial to society, is it still morally wrong? How does an imperfect human in a corrupt society and a fallen world find redemption? Not only is the plot interesting, but the book is fascinating from a historical, philosophical, religious, and social perspective, particularly when compared with the author’s own life.

Best Historical-Fiction Read:
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende: Similar in style to the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, this novel follows several generations of a prominent Chilean family and reflects the tumultuous, fascinating history of the country.

Best Inspirational:
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho: The wonderful, brief, deceptively simple parable that catapulted this Brazilian author to international fame. You can’t help but love this book and its message, which empowers and makes readers believe in following their dreams.

Most Overrated:
The Time Traveler’s Wife: I hated the characters in this book. Not a single decent human being amongst them. The two main characters were equally horrible people and their relationship was based solely on lust. Neither person developed any moral, spiritual, or in any other depth from start to finish. By the end, I just wanted them all to go away.

Next up: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I have an odd quirk that only allows me to read certain books when it feels seasonally correct. Russian literature and winter weather have always seemed to go hand in hand! Then again... I need one more quick read before the end of the year in order to meet my goal... Any ideas?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Pear Pie

My Thanksgiving pear pie turned out well, so I am going to post the recipe on my blog. It's actually a combination of 3 different recipes - hope you like the results! (Shout out to my friend Sydnie Speer for first introducing me to the concept of pear pie, and just how delicious it could be.)

Pear Pie with Streusel Topping

1 ¼ c. flour
¼ tsp. salt
3 T. butter, cut into small pieces
1 T. shortening, cut into small pieces
½ T. fresh lemon juice
Ice water

Lightly spoon flour into measuring cups; level with knife. Combine flour and salt in a large bowl; cut in butter and shortening with a pastry blender until mixture resembles course meal. Add lemon juice. Sprinkle surface with ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, and toss with a fork until moist and crumbly. Shape dough into a ball, and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill 1 hour.

3 T. flour
¼ tsp. nutmeg
1/8 tsp. salt
2/3 c. plus 1 T. sugar
2 ½ lb. firm-ripe Bartlett or Anjou pears, cored and peeled, each cut into 8 wedges
1 T. fresh lemon juice

Whisk together flour, nutmeg, salt and sugar. Gently toss with pears and lemon juice.
Roll out dough and fit into a 9 ½ inch glass or metal pie plate. Fill shell with filling and sprinkle with topping.

½ c. sugar
1/3 c. flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
¼ c. butter

Mix all together and crumble evenly over pie.

Bake pie on a baking sheet for 20 minutes at 400F, then reduce oven temperature to 350F and cover pie edge with a pie shield or foil. Continue to bake until crust is golden brown and filling is bubbling, 50 to 60 minutes more. Cool pie on a rack to warm or room temperature, at least 2 hours. Makes 8 servings.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Stewed Apples and Apple Hill

Every fall, it is my tradition to drive about an hour east of Sacramento to a community collectively known as Apple Hill - a series of family-run orchards, farms, shops, bakeries, and craft fairs around the city of Camino, California. When I was young, I would make this trek with my family and we would visit the same farms every year, sticking mostly to the biggest and most well-known locations, such as High Hill.

However, this fall, my husband and I went with few other friends and we explored new farms. At Denver Dan’s, we picked our own apples from the orchard and paid by the bucket. On one hand, it was more labor-intensive and expensive to buy my apples this way versus the more convenient method of buying them from the bins or by the box at one of the shops.

On the other hand, the apples were undoubtedly fresher than the boxed ones (who knows how long they had been sitting there?) and I felt a sense of accomplishment and personal connection to the literal fruits of our labor. I had the power to personally select the finest specimens on the trees. Furthermore, what could be more satisfying than to hunt for and gather my own food, then later prepare and consume it? It was rewarding to be involved in the whole process of consumption on this occasion. Plus, we discovered new varieties of lesser-known apples as we explored the rows of apple trees, each row boasting a different kind of apple. Winter Banana apple, anyone?

As we stopped and visited the various farms, we sampled freshly fried apple cider doughnuts, apple dumplings, homemade fruit curds and jams, and freshly pressed organic olive oils. I bought a frozen Dutch apple pie and a gallon of good fresh cider to take home. Later, at home, I also make several batches of stewed, one of the true joys of fall. I like to use fresh Apple Hill Cider to amplify the flavor of the apples, but if you don’t have access to it, substitute water. Here is my method of preparation:

Stacy’s Stewed Apples

Start with sliced and peeled apples (preferably a mixture of several kinds of apples, both sweet and tart). Place them in a study saucepan or stockpot, depending on how many apples you have and how much you intend to make. Pour in some cider and sprinkle generously with cinnamon and just a bit of nutmeg - not too much, as nutmeg can overpower other spices. Add sugar or brown sugar as desired, depending on the desired level of sweetness.

Cook over medium heat, stirring often with a wooden spoon, until the apples start to become soft. You can use the spoon to cut and mash the apples, a lot or a little, depending on how chunky you like it. Add more cider/water if the mixture starts to look dry.

When the apples have reached your desired consistency, you may serve them either warm or cool. They will keep for up to a week in the refrigerator. To store for longer, either freeze it in batches or can it for enjoyment all through the year. To can, ladle hot apples into sterilized cans and process for 20 minutes.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving has arrived, and with it, delicious fall flavors. The night before Thanksgiving, my mom and I always get together to bake pies. This endeavor has evolved over the years, although we still use Libby's recipe from the back of the can of pumpkin. (What? I still find it to be the best tasting recipe. Maybe that's just because I grew up with that taste? Also, I am in the camp of cooks who prefer recipes that use evaporated milk vesus condensed milk, which I feel adds an odd flavor.)

Growing up, my mom used frozen pie crusts, which I always thought to be chalky and flavorless. I usually ate around it in order to reach the irresistible pie filling. In college, I learned how to make decent pie crusts from scratch, and after I taught her this skill, we never went back to frozen. (Although I am still open to experimentation when it comes to crust. The best I've made so far combines shortening and butter. If anyone has an excellent crust recipe or secret, please share!)

Our family can be rather competitive when it comes to baking. One year, my brother (who also loves to cook) and I held an apple pie cook-off, which was officially declared a tie. Our two recipes were so different, it was like comparing apples and oranges- although we were really comparing apples and apples. This year, we are baking traditional pumpkin as a joint effort, and, since my brother claimed the apple, I am going to do a pear pie with a streusel topping. The recipe needs to be tweaked a little, but I will post it later.

In the meantime, we celebrated the holidays at work yesterday with our annual Pumpkin Potluck. Every dish revolves around the surprisingly versatile squash we so often relegate to pies only. My contribution was the following smooth, delicious soup. If you like mushrooms, you will love it! There's nothing better than a hot bowl of comforting soup when the weather is cold and damp. Enjoy!

Curried Pumpkin Soup

½ lb. fresh mushrooms, sliced
½ c. chopped onion
2 T. butter
2 T. flour
½ tsp. curry powder
3 c. vegetable broth
1 can (15 oz.) solid-pack pumpkin
1 can (12 oz) evaporated milk
1 T. honey
½ tsp salt
1/4 tsp. Pepper
1/4 tsp. Ground nutmeg

In a large saucepan, saute the mushrooms and onion in butter until tender. Stir in flour and curry powder until tender. Stir in flour and curry powder until blended. Gradually add the broth. Bring to a boil; cook and stir for 2 minutes or until thickened. Add the pumpkin, milk, honey, salt, pepper and nutmeg; heat through. Serves 7.