Saturday, April 14, 2012

M is for Minot

Reading: M is for Minot.  The town in North Dakota?  No, the author, Susan Minot.  Since I read Monkeys and then Lust & Other Stories (both recommended by someone I knew in college who was himself an aspiring writer), I have enjoyed Minot's writing and have read everything she has written, often times more than once.  I chose her novel Evening for book club after I had so thoroughly enjoyed it, only to receive a few complaints and a couple of "meh?!" responses.  But I would still highly recommend it (and as always, the book is so much better than the movie, even if Meryl Streep was in it), especially to writers.  I am writing today about my favorites.

Monkeys is a novel, though it reads more like a series of short stories all about the same family and spanning a period of 13 years.  The large family (7 children and their parents) are a privileged New England family with their share of dysfunction.  Who doesn't love dysfunction??  (Tolstoy said in the beginning of Anna Karenina, "Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  And I would add, "though even if their unhappiness and dysfunction is different than your own, you can probably still relate!")  The writing style is such that the main "events" of the stories often happen outside of the stories themselves.  We learn about them through the memories of the characters as they are revealed and through how the events shape and change the family. 

The collection of short stories Lust & Other Stories revolves around central themes of lust, love, relationships.  The characters are young, mainly in their twenties and live in New York City.  This book may not be for everyone (if you don't like certain four-letter words, or live in a world where people do not "hook up" or have sex with people they are not married to, you may not enjoy these stories), but Minot has such a way of showing us her characters so that she doesn't have to tell us about them, that it is worth reading just for that.  And her use of language, as in all of her books, is simply amazing.  Whenever I read something by her, I find myself thinking, "Now why couldn't I come up with a description/phrase/scene like that?" I just opened the book to find one example - "You wonder how long you can keep it up.  You begin to feel as if you're showing through, like a bathroom window that only lets in grey light, the kind you can't see out." - from the title story.  Now isn't that better than saying, "You wonder how long you can keep it up.  You think your cover is beginning to show." or something like that?

My other favorite novel of Minot's is Evening.  It is the story of Ann when she is 25 and Ann as she lay dying 40 years later, after 3 marriages and 5 children.  She is drifting in and out of consciousness, in and out of lucidity, from the past to the present and back again.  The writing is poetic and and powerful.  One of the complaints from some members of book club was about the lack of punctuation.  Specifically, there are no quotation marks.  This did not bother me.  It is clear when someone is speaking and the fluid nature of the writing does not require quotation marks.  The other  complaint was that it wasn't written in a linear style, but there are some people who will always whine when the story doesn't progress chronologically.  The woman is dying and on morphine, people!  She does not think logically and chronologically.  She is remembering and reflecting on her life, her loves, her passions, memories of people her family has never heard her mention before.  This book may not be easy to read, but then, I believe, as another reviewer has commented (on, that it is for readers who like narratives that ask them to chew and not only to swallow. 

Susan Minot's writing is not brain candy.  It is not something you gobble down because you are in a rush to get on to the next thing.  It is not a McDonald's hamburger.  This is a filet mignon, a full-bodied red wine, a rich chocolate cake.  Take a bite, savor the beauty of it, chew slowly and enjoy the moment.  Her writing is a meal you will still be thinking about long after it is over.

Until we read again,

Friday, April 13, 2012

L is for Lamb's ear and Lungwort

Lamb's ear, with hardy geranium in the background

front garden, lamb's ear on left of sidewalk
Lamb's ear in bloom
Weeding:  Besides plants with purple or yellow flowers, I also enjoy plants with interesting leaves.  Two of the interesting leaf plants that I like happen to start with "L".  Lamb's ear (official name 'Stachys') is just as soft as it sounds.  The leaves are fuzzy and silvery-colored.  It gets pink spikes of flowers but they are just an added bonus.  A word of caution about lamb's ear, though.  A little will become a lot. It makes a nice groundcover, and as with many groundcovers, it will cover a lot of ground if you let it.  It spreads by roots, shoots and seeds.  I started out with a normal sized plant and now have a large mass of it in the front bed (might make a soft little place to sit!), a growing patch of it on the side of the garage (transplanted from the mother mass), and little sproutlets all around both areas.  If you don't want it to reseed, cut the flowers off.  And if it is growing where you don't want it to be, rip it out.  But I love it for its soft leaves that aren't quite green.  Sometimes, if everything is the same color, it all blends together. 

Lungwort with hostas and ajuga
The next plant comes first with a bit of a rant about hosta. I know there are 10 million different kinds of hosta and everyone and their brother who has a shady spot in their yard grows at least one hosta, but I am not a fan. I think they just look like big lettuce plants and if I wanted that, I would grow lettuce - at least I could eat it then. The other part of my aversion to them probably stems from my neighbor across the street. She planted approximately 5000 hostas, all the same kind, in a kind of tutu around the mature evergreen trees in her yard. It is one of the least inspired landscapes I have seen. I have a few hosta that I acquired before deciding that I didn't like them. They may go to new homes eventually but that part of the yard (the "stump garden" named for the stump that used to be there until last summer when it finally got ground out) is a major work in progress. So anyway... (if you are still with me after that) what else can we grow in that shady spot? How about Lungwort (official name 'Pulmonaria')? It gets pink flowers but this is one I grow mainly for the leaves. There are different types, but the ones I have are dark green with splashes of silver and are very textural.

lungwort (on the left)

There you have 2 new plants to check out.

Until we weed again,

Thursday, April 12, 2012

K is for Knitting

Maroon, navy and gold hat for my dad
Creating: I love to knit.  I learned how when I was a jeune fille studying in France.  My mother is queen knitter but I had to travel across a large ocean to learn how to knit from a neurotic French woman, Madame Miclot.  It's a long story about why I didn't learn from Mom - ask her about it sometime when you see her. 

My first project was a scarf.  I bought some lovely soft acrylic that matched one of the colors in my jacket, a kind of teal-green sort of color.  Knitting became my form of meditation and relaxation.  By the time I got home, my scarf was 6 feet long.  Turns out, I had not learned how to stop knitting.  Mom showed me how to cast off/bind off.  It wrapped around my head twice and around my neck as well, so I didn't have to wear a hat.  I wore that scarf for years.  I am not sure where this treasure is now - probably packed away somewhere. Surely I would never get rid of it!

After that, I was given the yarn, needles and pattern for a fan and feather afghan.  This is a lace-type pattern and it was made with an off-white acrylic.  This afghan is still in beautiful shape nearly 20 years later, and in regular use in my living room. 

orange cat hat with ears - looks cuter on my sister
Did I mention that when I was first knitting, I was in college and, at that time, NO ONE was knitting.  It had not yet become "hip".  There were no movie stars "KIP'ing" (knitting in public).  But it was good for me to knit - I had a very stressful senior year and knitting helped keep me somewhat sane.  And I started teaching others to knit.  There is a good picture of our knitting group, sitting in my dorm room.  Me with my afghan, Bruce with the start of his black scarf and Kris with the beginnings of her scarf.  Bruce was a much better student than Kris.  If I could figure out the scanner, I might post that photo...

When I was a nanny after college, I read about a woman who taught classes on knitting Norwegian (Nordic) sweaters and signed up for her next class.  Having gone to a Norwegian-American college, I had been surrounded by those ski sweaters for 4 years.  I will post more about that class and its results in the future (think "N"). 

I was a fearless knitter. No one ever told me what I was doing was difficult, or that I wouldn't be able to do it, so I didn't know any better.  I didn't know that a large lace pattern afghan is kind of a big undertaking for a second project.  I had never knit in the round or with multiple colors or done many of the other techniques in the Nordic sweater class but that didn't stop me.  My project after the ski sweaters was an Aran knit cardigan with raglan sleeves (more on that later - think "R" for raglan), and pockets, and buttonholes.  Since then I have made socks (see future "S" post), more hats than I can shake a stick at, scarves, mittens, baby blankets and sweaters and booties, prayer shawls, a cellphone cozy that looks like an orange cat, and a scarf for a penguin.  I taught 3 squirrely third-graders and a sedate 4th grader to knit.  I taught E to knit (he made a coaster!).  If you want, I will teach you to knit.  I have met so many friendly knitters (and a couple of uppity snobbish ones, too) and even was part of a knitting book club for about a year - we read books about knitting, yarn and, in one instance, sheep.  I have been known to pick up yarn and needles and just start knitting, not knowing what I am making.  That is how I ended up the the red, black and white hat with tassels that fits absolutely no one, but makes a fine Christmas tree topper. 
 It fits no one but now goes on top of our Christmas tree as a quirky tradition.

Think I am off to make those sticks click for a while.

Until we knit again,

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

J is for Jicama

Eating: Jicama is kind of a weird thing.  Pronounced "HIK -ah-mah", it's a root vegetable that looks kind of like a potato.  Some woman at a Weight Watchers meeting I was at a few years ago described its taste as "like a stale apple" but I think she is full of crap.  If I may opine.  It has a slightly sweet taste, and the crunch of a good crisp apple.  I like to eat it raw and serve with a tasty spinach dip.  Peel the thick skin off,  cut into strips and serve.  Apparently it is high in Vitamin C, and can be tasty in salads as well.  And no one ever had to go to Weight Watchers from eating too much jicama.

Here is my dip recipe.  There is a friend of mine who I think only comes to my parties and perhaps is only my friend because I serve this dip. (I may be exaggerating - she is one of my best friends and we get together many times when spinach dip is not involved.)  It can be made no-fat and tastes just as good that way.  Dip away.  And try some jicama today.

Spinach Dip
Combine in a bowl: 2 C sour cream (can also use plain yogurt), 1 package Knorr Leek Soup mix (could also use another brand but I have only ever seen this made by Knorr), 1 package frozen spinach (cook and DRAIN WELL). Can also add some chopped water chestnuts though I find them a little hard to dip. Stir well; refrigerate until serving.  Best when made the night before so the flavors have time to marry and the dry soup mix isn't crunchy. 

Until we eat again,

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

I is for Iris

early miniature iris, the lisymakia in the background is still brown
Weeding: I like irises, from the very first miniature iris that blooms earlier in the spring than anything else, to the majestic beared irises which thrive on the west side of the garage, to the slender-leaved Siberian irises which love the east side of the house.  And most of my irises were free.  The only thing I like better than inexpensive plants are free plants.  I have friends who generously divide and give me plants.  For the past couple of years, I have participated in our city's plant swap.  And last fall I organized my own plant swap.  Free plants release me from guilt the next year when they don't come back, or when I forget to water them and they shrivel up and blow away.  I also love to talk to the gardeners who give me the plants - where did you grow them, what kind of soil do they like, etc.  And to be fair, I am not a total freeloader - I also generously divide and share my plants with others.  I don't know much about plants in general, but I do know the plants in my yard.  Here are some of my irises, purple of course.  Unfortunately, though I diligently took pictures all last spring/summer/fall, the majority of the photos have gone missing.  I may need Tech Support (that is, E) to help to track them down.  There are some glorious photos of the bearded and the Siberian which I cannot find.  I think the ones in the bouquet are the bearded, though.  They are deep purple.

Until we weed again,

Bouquet of what was blooming one day last summer

Monday, April 09, 2012

H is for Honey Hoisin Pork

Eating: I didn't plan this but today's recipe happens to be what I made for Easter dinner.  Honey Hoisin Pork Tenderloin is a recipe I received a number of years ago from a friend I used to work with.  The version I have says "Adapted from CL" which I assume is Cooking Light, but I do not know that for a fact.  E and I have made this many times - it is easy and good.  Sometimes, since it is just the two of us, we make it with chops instead.  I served with brown rice as well as a long grain and wild rice blend, and some roasted spring veggies (I'll include that recipe as a bonus today.).  For dessert we had a bunny cake - Funfetti cake with home-made vanilla frosting (thank you, Betty Crocker for that recipe!).  Bonus pictures of cute cake below!

Honey Hoisin Pork Tenderloin
2 T sliced green onions
2 T hoisin sauce
2 T low-sodium soy sauce
2 T honey
1 T hot water
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 (1-pound) pork tenderloin, trimmed of visible fat and silverskin
1/4 t salt
cooking spray
1/2 t sesame seeds

Combine first 6 ingredients in a small bowl.  Pour 1/4 C of this mixture in a large zip-top plastic bag; reserve remaining mixture.  Add pork to bag; seal and marinate in refrigerator 30 minutes, turning bag occasionally.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Remove pork from bag; discard marinade.  Sprinkle pork with salt.  Heat a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat.  Coat pan with cooking spray.  Add pork; cook 2 minutes, browning on all sides.  Brush 1 T reserved honey mixture over pork; sprinkle with sesame seeds.  Place skillet in oven. Bake at 400 for 20 minutes or until a thermometer registers 160 degrees (slightly pink) or until desired degree of doneness.

Place pork on a platter; let stand 5 minutes.  Cut pork across the grain into thin slices.  Drizzle with remaining honey mixture.

Roasted Spring Vegetables (from The Pampered Chef Celebrate! cookbook)
1 pound fresh asparagus spears
1 pound baby carrots
1 large yellow or red bell pepper
1 onion
3 T olive oil
1 garlic clove
1 1/2 t Pantry Rosemary Herb Seasoning Mix (or dried rosemary leaves, crushed)
1/4 t salt

Trim asparagus and cut into 2 1/2" pieces; set aside. Cut pepper into 1 1/2" pieces and onion into 8 wedges. Combine pepper, onion, carrots, olive oil, seasoning mix and salt in a large bowl. Toss to coat. Spread evenly on baking sheet (or Stoneware Bar Pan). Bake at 425 for 25 minutes. Add asparagus and bake additional 10-15 minutes or until vegetables are tender and golden. You can bake up to 2 hours ahead, let stand at room temperature then reheat in oven at 350 for 10-15 minutes or until warm.

I was tired and ready to be done.
naked bunny cake
I will not win any awards for cake frosting technique

Until we eat again,

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