Saturday, December 23, 2006

Book Review: The Brief History of the Dead

The Brief History of the Dead
by Kevin Brockmeier

Quickie Synopsis: In the city of the dead, life for the recently departed continues much as, well, life for the living. Restaurants are visited, jobs are attended to, new loves and old become reacquainted. The real plus side is that there's no need to worry about such trivial human concerns like eating well or exercising since you're already dead. And you suddenly have all the time you ever desired to stroll in the park or catch up on your reading. The city of the dead is a kind of holding area--you have definitely died, but you haven't quite yet left earth. There are still people down there who remember you and hold on to you. Until all the people you know have also died, you will stay in the city. And when the last person who remembers you dies, you disappear from the city, and none of the deceased residents knows where you disappear to.

On Earth, it is a time of war, of terrorism, of environmental collapse. Large groups of people appear and disappear suddenly in the city--gradually it is realized that no one left on Earth to remember the dead. As the population of the city slowly stabilizes again, a connection is discovered among the remaining residents: they all know or are somehow connected to a woman named Laura Byrd. And on Earth, Laura Byrd is struggling for survival. She is trapped in Antarctica, alone, running out of supplies, and unaware that she may very well be the last human on Earth.


In The Brief History of the Dead, Kevin Brockmeier explores two classic philosophical questions: "What happens after we die?" and "What if you were the last person left on earth?" Each question follows its own thread, but the narratives weave through each other with a musical grace until the two are finally twined into a single inevitable piece. Neither story is quite strong enough to stand on its own, but when combined, they represent a moving and powerful whole.

Some of the most impressive writing in this novel comes in the character of Laura Byrd. Laura is an unlikely heroine for this novel. She is a mid-level employee at the Coca Cola Corporation and has been sent by her employer to Antarctica as part of a publicity campaign. She is billed as the team's wildlife expert, but she herself readily admits that her expertise in that area is rather lacking. Alone in the arctic desert and cut off from any other humans, she doesn't possess a great deal of survival knowledge, and endures mainly by virtue of fancy space-age equipment and her own tenacity to live. She is quirky and immensely lovable, reacting to situations in much the same way we might imagine ourselves reacting if we suddenly realized that we were trapped in an arctic science station while an epidemic was killing off the rest of humanity. Most significantly, we see Laura grow and develop as she reacts to new situations and new realizations about the reality of her situation. Brockmeier has created Laura's character to perfection.

And in stark contrast to Laura Byrd's high-action adventure, the segments of the novel that take place in the city of the dead have a dreamy, reflective quality. The newly dead are rediscovering what they loved about living and realizing that they have been given a second go-around at pursuing their dreams. Brockmeier meditates on what connects us to each other, crafting mini-stories that profile different residents of the city who are both close to and only loosely connected to Laura Byrd. While the movement and story of the city of the dead isn't as plot-driven or presented in the same sharp detail as Laura's story, the city is the necessary backdrop that gives Laura's story added substance and consequence.

Still, there were some aspects of this book that left me severely wanting. Take the title: The Brief History of the Dead. What did Brockmeier intend by calling this book a 'history'? Because it's not; it's really more of a "Brief Story of What's Happening to the Dead." Or "The City of the Dead: A Guidebook." One of the whole points of Brockmeier's version of the afterlife is that it's relatively timeless. There are days and nights, there are tomorrows and yesterdays, people come and leave the city, the weather fluctuates--but there prevailing understanding is that time is suspended. The inhabitants of the city are waiting. Nothing ever really happens in the city of the dead--no revolutions or political shenanigans, there are no famines or environmental disasters, no major inventions or leaps of humankind. In short, nothing happens to MAKE history. I toyed with the idea that the author is being ironic and is trying to emphasis the lack of history in the book by including it in the title. But really, I think he got lazy. I think he thought of a great title for a book a long time before writing it and clung to that title even as the book he was writing changed and grew to the point where the title was no longer the right fit. (P.S. Any grammar geeks out there want to have a go at discussing the significance and merit of calling this "THE history" as opposed to "A history"?!...Or perhaps I should say "AN history"....)

And let's talk about the city of the dead. This is an interesting idea: a city (just the one) like a cosmic waiting room where the dead go after their bodies have died but they are still half-alive in the memories of the people they knew on earth. It makes sense that these recently departed still have attachments to their earthly selves--their jobs, their hobbies, the idea that they need to eat, and so on. This idea inevitably led to some obvious holes in the conceptualization of the city--holes that I at first took to be intriguing intellectual puzzles, but with which I became increasingly frustrated as either they remained unresolved or they were resolved in a way that only let to more puzzles.

For instance, take the concept of money. At first I thought that there was no money in the city and everything operated on the Utopian ideal of plenty-for-all. But toward the middle of the book, there is a scene where a woman throws coins at another resident of the city because she thought he was begging. Aha! Money after all! But then: why? Why is there money? Where does it come from? What does it represent--is there a ghostly Fort Knox somewhere? How do people get it? Are there banks?

And where does the 'stuff' come from? Who makes the coins and where does the metal come from? Where do things like paper come from--paper to print the newspapers and book all the dead are reading? Where does the food come from? Are there fields being harvested somewhere in the land of the dead, somewhere off-screen? Or does food appear by magic in the larders of the restaurants and kitchens of the city? Maybe when the living back on earth think about food, food also appears in the land of the dead--spirit food! And do the dead actually need to eat anyway, or is it just force of habit?

At one point, one of the characters notices that the trash hasn't been picked up yet, which immediately made me wonder, "Who is choosing to spend their afterlife as a trash collector?" Maybe the dead don't get a choice. Maybe they automatically just do what they were doing when they died--whether they were a child or a retired person or a stockbroker. Maybe the whole technical operation of the city relies on the fact that people of all ages die and therefore the city of the dead has enough diversity to sustain all its functions.

The further I got into the book, the more these kinds of questions bugged me and distracted me from the story. I'll grant you that Brockmeier MAY have left these kinds of details intentionally ambiguous in an attempt to draw attention to the fact that we in the land of the living don't always have a good idea of where our goods come from and we often treat them as if they appeared by magic. That's possible. But I think not.

But just as with my suspicion with the title, my gut feeling is that Brockmeier got lazy. I don't think that Brockmeier knew the answers to these ambiguities and inconsistencies any more than the reader does. As any writer worth his or her salt knows, the writer needs to know every last detail of their story down to the color of Timmy's shoelaces and how many stoplights Mr. Jones passes on his way to work. If the author is completely conscious of the world and characters he or she is describing, the necessary details will naturally float to the top and the reader will be able to fill in the rest of the blanks on his or her own. These small details of shoelaces and stoplights may never make it into the final story; but it's the fact that the author has them firmly in mind as he or she is writing that deepens the story the same way a dash of secret spice will deepen the flavor of chili and make it a better stew without anyone being the wiser. Brockmeier clearly knew Laura Byrd's character inside and out, so why didn't he apply the same level of craft to the city of the dead?

Intended or otherwise, The History of the Dead only manages a superficial, if highly entertaining, look into some of humankind's deepest questions. It's this lack of depth that ultimately keeps an otherwise well-written and well-conceived book solidly in the camp of whimsical science fiction and prevents it from becoming anything more than an interesting philosophical jaunt.


Final Recommendation: Worth the read

Good Read For When You're: Waiting at the airport, on vacation, or sick on the couch looking for good distraction.

Good Choice For: Science fiction fans, precocious teenagers, and philosophy majors thinking of switching to creative writing. Oh, and book groups. This is a bone fide book group read if I ever read one.

If You Liked This Book, You Might Also Like: Eva Moves the Furniture by Margot Livesay

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Books: Charlie Bone and the Hidden King

Children of the Red King Book 5: Charlie Bone and the Hidden King
by Jenny Nimmo

Quickie Synopsis: On the eve of his 10th birthday, Charlie Bone finds that he can hear the voices of people in photographs. Fearing that he's going insane, Charlie instead discovers that he is one of the magically talented descendants of the Red King, an ancient monarch who had 10 children each endowed with special powers. Charlie is sent to boarding school at the mysterious Bloor's Academy where he meets other children with incredible talents and begins to realize that there is a rift in the descendants of the Red King, some of whom are working for good and others who are hungry for power. In this fifth book, Charlie Bone and his friends venture further into the mystery of the Red King, battle an ancient shadow, and get closer to the truth about Charlie's missing father.

Other books in the Children of the Red King Series:

Book 1: Midnight for Charlie Bone--in which Charlie first discovers his power, begins his adventures at Bloor's Academy, and searches for a missing girl.
Book 2: Charlie Bone and the Time Twister--in which an old relative of Charlie Bone and a nemesis of the Bloors is sent forward through time to Charlie's present day
Book 3: Charlie Bone and the Invisible Boy--in which Charlie Bone and his friends attempt to find and rescue an invisible boy named Ollie.

Book 4: Charlie Bone and the Castle of Mirrors--in which Charlie and his friends work to save Billy Raven from his sinister adopted family


Ok, you're all thinking it, so let's get it out in the open: This "Children of the Red King" series bears so many similarities to the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling that it's almost laughable. Slightly clueless boy who still somehow becomes the magnetic leader of his group of friends? Check. Magical academy set in a castle-like manor with twisty hallways, lofty ceilings, and portraits of stuff old people? Check. An inevitable battle between good and evil building over the course of several books? Check. And unfortunately, since these books came out after the beginning of the Harry Potter craze, I don't even think it's possible to say Jenny Nimmo wasn't influenced by the Potter books.

But here are the positives and why these books are worth reading: Nimmo's series is geared toward a younger audience who may not be ready for the darker, more complicated Harry Potter books. They would be perfect for an eager second grader all the way on up to a fifth grader. Despite some of the iconic resemblances to the Potter series, Nimmo stands on her own with unique characters, engaging dialogue, and unexpected plot situations. Her books are solidly well-written and vibrant with a spark and creativity that is all Nimmo's own.

Having said this, Book 5: Charlie Bone and the Hidden King was a bit of a disappointment. A lot of the same attributes that really distinguished Nimmo's books in the past ended up falling flat in this latest installment. The dialogue was often stilted and peppered with the kind of bland, characterless phrases that you might find in the first meeting of a Short Fiction 101 class. The characters, who readers have grown to love over the course of the previous four books, appear fickle and one-dimensional. Perhaps in response to criticisms that her plot development has been too predictable in her past books, the storyline in Book 5 takes so many sharp turns and felt so cobbled together that it left me feeling bewildered, confused, and ultimately unsatisfied. Even the long-anticipated unveiling of Charlie's true father wasn't enough to pull this book out of its doldrums.

More than anything else, it felt like Nimmo lost confidence in her vision for the series. Flipping through the front of the book, I see that Nimmo has dedicated the book to the memory of her editor, Miriam Hodgson. I wonder if the death of her editor can partly explain the loss of momentum in this book--or if her editor was the real powerhouse behind the spark and creativity in the series? It's unclear whether or not this is the final book in the series. In many ways I hope it isn't the end of the series. This would be a disappointing and anticlimactic end to what is otherwise a fantastic and imaginative middle-reader series. I have faith that Nimmo can reconnect with her original enthusiasm and desire for this project, and bring series to a more powerful conclusion in another book.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Cooking: Rebellion in my Roasted Veggies

I'm a bread and butter kind of girl. Cooking and eating fancy meals is just dandy for special occasions, but what I'm really interested in is what people eat every day. I like to keep it simple and keep it good. Good food doesn't need to take 10 hours to prepare or call for a million ingredients or use expensive spices in order to be good. You don't even need to be a master chef in order to make it good. You just need to want it to be good.

Two years ago, I didn't know how to cook. The Engineer and I subsisted on stir-fries and rice, pasta and jar sauce, and runs to Anna's Taqueria for burritos. Then I started doing WeightWatchers. And I realized that eating well was really boring. No flavor. No feeling of being full. No satisfaction of any kind. I felt that the only choice being offered was between eating what tasted good and being 'ok' with the portly consequences or eating boring food and staying healthy-thin. I felt miserable and trapped and angry.

And that's how cooking became my rebellion. I wanted my food to be good. I wanted it to taste good and be good for me at the same time. I wanted this in a way that I felt in my gut and my heart. I absolutely did not believe that my only choice was between good-tasting food and good-for-you food. So I started to cook.

Two years later, I have a lot more confidence in the kitchen. I try new recipes as I come across them and will reincarnate recipes to my own tastes if I think the original had potential. I know where I can cut corners and use low-fat ingredients, but add a few 'regular' ingredients to bring out a good balance of flavor. And I've loosened up a lot. I'm a recovering perfectionist and it's still hard to try a new ingredient without knowing how it will taste or not feel like a failure if a recipe doesn't turn out brilliantly.

I've also worked on expanding my portfolio of "Tastes That I Like." In a recent interview with Seth Roberts on The Restaurant Guys (Click HERE to download the interview), Roberts mentions that Americans tend more and more to eat foods with the same flavors. Walk into any fast food burger joint in the US and order any burger and I guarantee that it taste pretty much like any other burger you would order anywhere. On top of that, Roberts says that people tend to eat the same basic foods with the same basic flavors over and over again--their daily diets don't change. Although Roberts didn't go into this in his interview, what this tells me is that a lot of people out there are no longer really able to recognize what tastes good; they only recognize what is familiar.

When I first started cooking, I was only able to recognize when I didn't like something that I ate--it was too bland or too over-cooked, etc.--but I couldn't identify what was missing or how to make it better. It took a lot of trial and error in order for to figure out what flavors I liked, how much of a particular flavor was good, and what flavors went together. Chefs and foodies call this 'expanding your palate.' I'm still figuring this out and have gotten more adventurous about trying new combinations of ingredients and spices (Lemon-Anise Muffin recipe coming soon!).

So, bread and butter. When I was in college, my dad sent me a post card that said, "To simplify, you have to say no." That post card has hung next to every desk I've had since and I often think about it when I'm in decision-making situations--whether that situation is what to wear in the morning, how to handle a new project, or what ingredients to add in my soup. Simplify. Keep it simple and keep it good, that's how I roll.


Oven-Roasted Vegetables

small red or white potatoes (2" - 3" across)--estimate about 2 potatoes per person plus one for the cook--halved and quartered
1 large onion--cut into wedges
1 red pepper--cut into chunks
1 zucchini/eggplant/summer squash--cut into chunks
Salt to taste
Thyme, rosemary and/or oregano to taste

Note: The potatoes should be cooked separately from the other veggies. Not only do they take longer, but other veggies tend to release water as they bake, which prevents the potatoes from crisping. If baking both potatoes and veggies, put the potatoes in the oven 10-20 minutes before the other veggies so both trays will be ready at the same time.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Potatoes: Put the potatoes into a bowl by themselves. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of olive oil over the potatoes. Add 1 teaspoon of sea salt and 1 teaspoon of dried thyme, rosemary, or oregano (or any combination of these herbs equalling about 1 tsp). If using fresh herbs, increase the amount by 1/2 to 1 tsp. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil, spray with non-stick coating, and spread potatoes over sheet. Bake for 40-50 minutes until browned and crisp, stirring occasionally to prevent the potatoes from sticking.

Other veggies: Combine the other veggies in a separate bowl, drizzle with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and add herbs. Line a second baking sheet with aluminum foil, spray with non-stick coating, and arrange veggies. Bake for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until onions are crisp at the edges and caramelized, and the other veggies are cooked through.

Combine veggies and potatoes, adjust spices to taste, and serve!

WeightWatchers: Small potatoes are about 1 point each. One tablespoon of olive oil is 3 points. If cooking with 8 potatoes and 2 tablespoons of olive oil (total--one tablespoon for each bowl), the total points for the entire mess o' veggies is about 10. In other words, this is a very WeightWatcher's friendly meal or side-dish! I usually combine about 1 cup of roasted veggies (about 1 point) and 3/4 cup of rice (3 points) for a more satisfying meal.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A Knitting Check-in: Meathead Hats and Engineering Sweaters

Knitting Distraction Numero Uno: The Meathead Hat

While paddling around the Blog-o-pond a few weeks ago, I came across a mention that Portland (Oregon, y'all) fiber artist Larissa Brown was in the process of compiling a knitting book and was looking for volunteers to test-knit some of the patterns. Well, I'm always up for a good old fashioned ho-down so I signed myself on up! Yee-haw!

Right now she's testing her signature piece: the meathead hat.
This was a pattern she developed for an art show called Conference in fall of 2005. For this piece, she gathered 100 volunteer knitters from around the world and had them each knit the same hat in the same yarn. She affixed a numbered cattle tag to each hat and pinned them to the art gallery wall in rows. You can read a brief synopsis of the show and see some of the photos on click HERE. The original invite to test the pattern and some more background on the project is also HERE.

The pattern is very cute and quite simple--one of those great novice
knitter patterns that is a snap to make and still looks wicked impressive. The truly novel thing about this pattern is the suggestion to add some sort of embellishment over the ear. In my opinion, knitters tend to follow the pattern that's before them and they don't always realize that they can jazz it up any ol' way they please. I like that this pattern is basic and yet it also encourages you to add your own bit of creativity and personality. It's fun to see what people have come up with--you can check out the pool of pictures HERE. My favorite so far is the meat cleaver!

I'm sworn to secrecy on the pattern itself, but I will tell
you that I knit mine with a double strand of Lamb's Pride Bulky "Chocolate Souffle." The leaves are knitted with some scraps of Lamb's Pride Worsted using the pattern for Aspen Leaves from Knitted Embellishments by Nicky Epstein. This was a fun little side project and a nice break from the marathon Engineer Sweater (see below). I've gotten plenty of "Wa...huh?" looks as I've walked around Boston, but s'cool, yo. I can dig it. I'll be very curious to glimpse the other patterns that Larissa has in store. For those interested, she will be having additional volunteer knit-alongs to test out her other projects, and she will post on her blog when the knit-alongs are open. Her blog is

Knitting Distraction Numero Dos: The Engineer's Sweater

Hello, my name is Emma, and I am a knitter who has never knitted a sweater. And I'll tell you why: yarn is not cheap. It's fine for the small projects--your scarves and your fingerless gloves and wombs or what have you--but for the larger ones? Fuggedaboudit. I mean, if I'm going to end up paying $100 or more on the yarn alone to knit myself a sweater, I'm sorry but I'll just go BUY a sweater that I like for that much. I'm a crazy obsessed knitter, no doubt there, but I've got my limits. And then along came KnitPicks.

While knitting the Aid-and-Abet Glove Pattern, I came across an online-only store called KnitPicks and fell in love. At first, I was skeptical--I mean $2.49 for a skein of merino wool? C'mon, where's the catch? (For non-knitters who are still with us at this point in the post, $2.49 is UNHEARD of cheap for merino wool.) I thought surely the yarn must be crap. The colors--deceptively gorgeous on the website--just had to be a fluke. But I asked around my knitting group at work and found one woman who absolutely swore that KnitPicks sold some of the best yarn she'd ever gotten. She said I couldn't go wrong. But if this were true, why aren't all the knitters stashing up at KnitPicks? Is it a secret because knitters who buy there are afraid it will become too popular and the prices will go up? Or is that the yarn just isn't very good? Still hesitant, I ordered several swatches so that I could see the actual colors and feel some bits of the wool.

The colors were indeed a bit off from the pictures on the website, but that's to be expected since digital colors are notoriously unfaithful depending on your computer. (If you order from KnitPicks, I definitely recommend ordering swatches first--especially if you're doing a big project.) The swatch yarn felt a bit scratchy, but otherwise of good quality (hard to tell how something's going to knit up when all you have is a 2 inch piece of string). I had ordered a couple of skeins of sock yarn along with the swatches and was very impressed by them--the yarn felt soft and the colors were very rich and deep-hued. I was starting to feel better about the cheap yarn and was ready to take a leap of faith. With some mild trepidation, I approached the Engineer on the subject of sweaters.

You know, i
t took four years of trust-building, proof-gathering, convincing, cajoling, and outright bribery, but the unarguable affordability of the yarn has finally tilted the scales. The Engineer has finally buckled under the pressure and is granting me the singular pleasure of knitting him a sweater for his Christmas present. (You might be asking yourself if taking a leap of faith on both the yarn and the project at the same time was really a wise idea, but I don't like to do anything in halves. There's a proverb about this somewhere, I'm sure.)

We looked at several different patterns and he decided that he liked the Leo pattern from Knitty the best. (A link to the pattern is HERE.) He left it to me to pick the yarn (but I double checked the color with him before ordering all 16 skeins, oh goodness, yes). I decided to go with a deep blue color in the Merino wool. Downside of the merino is that you have to hand wash it, but the upside is that it's very soft and a bit cheaper. FYI, this is not the type of present that I would want to surprise him with or try to keep secret from him--I want him to be happy with the sweater and actually WEAR it, so I knew I wanted him to be weighing in on the pattern, the color, the fit, and all those other crucial details. Since we live together, I also knew there was no way I could knit this in secrecy or have any hope of finishing it before the second coming if I tried to only knit when he wasn't around.

This project isn't so much a distraction as it is the focus of all motor activity any time I sit down on the couch. And since I discovered that the Boston Public Library kindly purchased all the seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek: Voyager, I've been spending a lot of time on my couch reliving middle school fantasy worlds and knitting my fingers into knots.

The yarn is knitting up beautifully. I had a moment of panic when all those skeins showed up. Even with the swatch, the color wasn't quite what I'd expected. But now that I've finished the back and half of the front, I'm really liking the color. Neither of these pictures really does the color justice--it's kind of a summer sky right after sunset kind of blue. A bit turquoise, but deeper. The fabric of the sweater is really soft. It's put-your-cheek-against-it-and-coo soft. And the whole time I'm thinking, "I only paid $2.49 a skein!"

A few pattern notes: the sweater is actually NOT fitted--it just looks that way in the picture because I had to drape it over the back of the sofa to get the whole thing in the shot (who knew the Engineer had such a huge back?!). Don't worry--it's properly manly and straight. The red threads on the left-hand side (you can see them if you click on the top picture) are not a part of the pattern. They're little pieces of scrap yarn to count the rows since I inevitably get distracted and forget to write down how many rows I've done. I just thread a little piece of contrasting yarn through a stitch every five rows, and then I'll take them out when the sweater is done. They aren't actually holding any stitches in place.

With KnitPicks, my whole knitting world has opened up. All those patterns I coveted but dismissed because of lack of funds are now back up for grabs. I'm particularly excited by the sock yarn, the fingering weight yarn (for nice lacy sweaters) and the Wool of the Andes yarn (for felting). I've got big plans for 2007, my friends, BIIIIIG plans...

The KnitPicks website is: Have at it, fellow knitters. All my blessings.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Cooking: Enchiladas--A good use of leftover turkey

I know, I know--Thanksgiving is but a distant memory and you're on to bigger and better things by now. Unfortunately, between end-of-production-season frenzy at the Noodle Factory and Blogger being wonky on me, I've fallen a bit behind on my A-game here. Regardless, I'm sure there are some of you who still have a few morsels of dried-out turkey lurking in some forgotten container at the back of your fridge. You've had it on sandwiches. You've made soups. You've re-heated it until it can't be re-heated no more, no more. And now, not only are you sick of it, but your good Midwestern waste-not-want-not roots just won't let you throw away those last few mouthfuls that aren't even enough meat for a whole sandwich. Well, here is one last turkey left-overs resurrection for you to enjoy. If you don't have as much meat left as the recipe recommends, just throw in some veggies to fill it out. (Notes on completely vegetarian versions are at the end of the blog.)

Turkey Enchiladas

1 c. (4 oz) turkey or chicken breast--shredded or chopped into small chunks
1 jar salsa (~12 oz or so)

1 c. cheese--shredded
1 can black beans--drained and rinsed
1/2 c. non-fat plain yogurt
1 tsp chili powder (to taste)
1/2 tsp cumin (to taste)
1 tsp salt (to taste)
8 6"-flour tortillas

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Spread a thin layer of the salsa on the bottom of a 10x6 inch baking dish.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix the turkey, 1/2 cup of the cheese, the yogurt, the beans, and the spices. Taste a bit of the mixture to make sure you like the spices; add more spices if it doesn't have enough taste for you, but remember that you'll be eating this with salsa. Lay the tortillas out on a clean counter top and divide the turkey filling equally between each. You want the mound of filling to be toward the bottom third of each tortilla in a roughly rectangular shape.

Begin rolling up the tortillas. Fold the bottom (smaller) flap over the filling. Tuck in the sides. Roll the tortilla away from you until the filling is completely wrapped. ( has a great demo on the best way to roll up a tortilla for a burrito-type wrap HERE--it's toward the middle of the article.) Lay the enchilada seam-side down in your baking dish. Repeat for the rest of your enchiladas.

Pour the remaining salsa over the enchiladas, and then top with your remaining 1/2 cup of cheese. Cover with tin foil and bake about 20 minutes. Remove tin foil and bake for another 5 minutes until the cheese is completely melty and a little crispy-looking. Enjoy!


  • I found that one jar of salsa wasn't quite enough. I recommend using one whole jar of a chunky salsa (use some in the filling and some on the top), and then about half of a jar of a thinner, sauce-like salsa to make sure you get the moisture to really drench the enchiladas. Alternatively, you could use one jar of salsa and a bit of crushed or pureed tomato.
  • Any kind of salsa will do here, and whatever salsa you pick can really change the entire flavor of the dish. I used a roasted garlic salsa from Trader Joe's that was really fabulous.
  • If you're a vegetarian or simply don't have any leftover turkey or chicken on hand, you can replace the meat with other veggies. Try any or all of the following: diced onions, tofu crumbles, diced quorn, corn or hominy, zucchini, mushrooms, and peppers. Even cubed and cooked squash would make a good, sweeter version!
  • This is a pretty gosh darn healthy meal. If you're looking to make this more waist friendly, you can use a lot of low-fat ingredients and the end result doesn't taste at all low-fat. It really makes a difference to get a good quality salsa that you like and a good reduced-fat cheese like Sargento. I used 96% fat-free tortillas, nonfat yogurt, and a reduced-fat Sargento Mexican cheese mix. If you follow the Weight Watcher's program, the filling is about 2 points per enchilada and the tortillas I used were 1 point each--using my same ingredients, each enchilada comes out to about 3 points each. For dinner, 1 and 1/2 enchiladas really filled me up. Yay, cheese!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Cooking: Pecan and Salt Caramel Cheesecake

I was willing to bring any dish to Thanksgiving dinner that my host requested, but I absolutely insisted on bringing this Pecan and Salt Caramel Cheesecake. I first saw this recipe a few months ago over at (the recipe is HERE) and immediately knew I was going to have to make it. Luckily, there was very little resistance to adding another dessert to the menu--especially one with an ingredients list like this one.

Speaking of the ingredients, my only real worry with this recipe was that it would be a complete sugar overload. I easily envision the ingredients mingling together into one uniform 'sugar!!!' instead of retaining their individual flavors. And the verdict? It's a sweet dessert to be sure, but I was surprised and pleased to taste distinct layers to the sweetness and real depth of flavor. The sour of the cream cheese complimented the buttery caramel. The graham cracker was a nice balance to the sugar and vanilla. I think with a little more experimentation and refinement of the various steps, the caramel flavor could give the whole cake a roasted, smoky flavor that would really bring it all together.

My mom asked me how many Weight Watchers points each slice of this little doozy was and I just laughed at her. Honestly, folks, I didn't even bother to figure it out. This is just one of those occasions when you just need to relax and be a glut without guilt. Having said this, I do have a few ideas for making this cake a bit more waist-friendly (see below).

Some thoughts for improvements and future variations:

  • My caramel ended up with little chunks of sugar suspended in it. They weren't rock hard, didn't pose a threat to any one's dental work, and we didn't even notice them once I added the pecans, but the perfectionist in me was disgruntled. My suspicion is that I didn't stir the butter and sugar as thoroughly as I should have (I was in a bit of a rush seeing as how the Engineer's mother was arriving in about ten minutes). I've done a bit of research on the properties of sugars and making caramel sauce since making this recipe and have decided that, as you might suspect, making caramel is a bit more tricky than this recipe would lead a gal to believe. I'm actually really intrigued by the whole process since it has to do with chemical reactions on the molecular level and all sorts of science-experiment type things. I'm planning to do some more research and experimentation, and will be sure to share my findings with y'all!

  • Another caramel note: I was happy with the final flavor--it really did taste like caramel!--but I think it could have had more depth. As my pal Harold McGee says in his book On Food and Cooking, "The aroma of a simple caramelized sugar has several different notes, among them buttery and milky, fruity, flowery, sweet, rum-like, and roasted. As the reactions proceed, the taste of the mixture becomes less sweet as more of the original sugar is destroyed, with more pronounced acidity and eventually bitterness and an irritating, burning sensation." Thanks, Harold! Since my caramel could definitely be described as "buttery and milky," my suspicion is that I could have let the syrup boil for a little while longer to deepen the flavor before adding the butter and taking it off the heat.

  • I love pecans, but I'm not sure they really added very much here. The Engineer suggested briefly dry-frying or roasting the pecans before adding them to the cake. This is something that is often suggested in other recipes I've come across in order to activate the oils in the nut and enhance the overall flavor. I also think that roasting the pecans would bring out similar flavors in the caramel.

  • I also wondered about doing away with the pecans all together and instead sprinkling roughly crumbled graham crackers on the top. This would add a bit more crunch and bite in the mouth, would mirror the graham cracker crust (of course), and would also reduce the number of ingredients competing for precedence in your mouth. The taste of the cheesecake and caramel is complex enough, and unless the pecans are really enhancing the flavor in those components, I think they're just distracting. Again, I think graham crackers could compliment the flavors just as well if not better.

  • I am curious to make a lower-fat version of this cheesecake. A recipe for New York Cheesecake in The Best Light Recipes by Cook's Illustrated suggests replacing the cream cheese with a combination of light cream cheese, drained cottage cheese, and drained low-fat yogurt. The recipe is described as definitely tasting different than regular cheesecake, but just as excellent on its own merit. I've tried several recipes from this book and have been well pleased with many of the recipes, which don't just rely on using the "Low Fat" version of a full-fat product. Worth a try anyways.

  • It would also be fun to experiment with different flavors in the caramel. This could be done by either infusing the syrup while it's melting or by adding flavors to the final caramel as it's cooling. Cook's Illustrated has several mouth-watering suggestions: Orange-Espresso Caramel Sauce, Coconut Ginger Caramel Sauce, and Dark Rum Caramel Sauce, to name a few.
Some serving suggestions:

  • I think that this recipe could translate really well into a finger-food, buffet-table item. My thought is to make the cheesecake as normal, but then cut out mini-cheesecakes (either in square or in circles using a biscuit cutter) that would be about an inch or so across--small enough to be eaten in one single bite. Then use a chopstick or other poking-device to dowel a little hole in the top of the cake. Fill the hole with caramel and top with one whole pecan or a fragment of graham cracker.

  • Another serving option would be to make several mini-cakes in individually-portioned ramekins. This would be fun for a dinner party and would be a bit more elegant than cutting slices of cheesecake.
Ok, ok, enough jabbering. Here's the recipe itself:


Pecan and Salt Caramel Cheesecake
Adapted from


1 1/4 c. graham cracker crumbs (5-6 graham cracker rectangles)
4 tbsp (1/2 stick) unsalted butter--at room temperature
3 tbsp granulated sugar


2 lbs (4 8-oz packages) cream cheese--at room temperature
1 c. granulated sugar
1 large egg yoke--at room temperature
3 whole eggs--at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract

Caramel Topping:

1 c. granulated sugar
4 tbsp (1/2 stick) unsalted butter--at room temperature
1/2 c. heavy cream--at room temperature
1 c. roughly chopped pecans
1 large pinch sea salt

To begin:

Place all ingredients (included refrigerated ingredients) on workspace. Allow refrigerated ingredients to come to room temperature. The butter should be soft and malleable. Eggs can also be placed in a bowl of hot water to bring them to room temperature.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

To make the crust:

To make graham cracker crumbs, break several squares of graham crackers into rough pieces in a bowl. Use the bottom of a cup or a pestle to grind the crackers into uniform-sized crumbs. This was one of the most satisfying parts of the process--I may start crumbling graham crackers for stress relief. Mix sugar into the crumbs. Mix in the butter with your hands, squeezing gobs of butter together with the crumbs with your fingers, until thoroughly combined. Press into the bottom of a 9- to 10-inch spring form pan. (If you don't have a spring form pan and want to make this cake in a regular pie dish, make sure to use a deep dish pan at least 2.5 inches deep. There's lots of toppings that go on this and the cheesecake with rise quite a bit in the oven!)

To make the cheesecake:

In the bowl of a stand mixer (or medium-sized bowl if using hand mixers), roughly combine sugar and cream cheese with a spoon. Once the sugar is adhered to the cream cheese, beat with a mixer until light and smooth--about the consistency of ganache frosting. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing until the egg is completely blended in (but be careful of over-mixing; the egg should just be barely blended so you can no longer see strings of the yellow yoke). Add vanilla extract and mix.

Pour mixture into the spring form pan on top of the graham cracker crust. Bake until a toothpick or a cake tester comes out clean and the center is set. The instructions say this will take about 40 minutes, but mine ended up taking about 55 minutes, so just monitor your cake carefully. It will rise significantly in the pan and turn a deep golden color around the edges. It will also likely crack along the top--this is not so desirable in normal cheesecake, but fine for this one--just more nooks and crannies for the caramel!

Let the cheesecake cool completely on a cooling rack with the spring form still attached to the base. As it cools, the cheesecake will sink a bit into itself. Ultimately, the sides will be sloped slightly higher than the middle.

For the caramel:

Combine the sugar and 1 tablespoon of water in a small saucepan and stir until you make a thick sugar paste. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. At this point, the recipe says to allow the mixture to boil until it is amber in color. While this is true, I think it's a bit misleading about what you should expect.

In this first picture (left), the sugar/water paste has just come to a boil. It looks a bit shiny, but is still a grey color. This will boil furiously for a few minutes without changing color and the boiling will slowly begin to stop. In my first batch of caramel, I kinda panicked at this point and assumed that I had done something wrong since it wasn't changing colors. I stirred it a bit, and the mixture started to reform itself into granules of sugar (the middle image). I waited for a while longer and noticed that the sugar on the bottom was melting again, and the re-melted sugar was indeed turning an amber color. However, the sugar was really clumping together and looking more like rock candy than sauce, so I dumped it into a pan to cool (far right picture) and started over again.

My recommendation is DON'T STIR the mixture--a crust will form on the top and you'll see it pushing and dipping here and there as the sugar melts into a liquid again. Eventually (in about 5 minutes or so), the crust will melt as well and you can stir it a bit. I wasn't sure exactly what constituted an 'amber' color, so I erred on the side of caution and called it good when the sugar was about the color of browned butter.

Add the butter to the pan, and be careful because the mixture will pop and bubble and generally behave like a spoiled brat of a sauce. Stir until the butter is completely combined with the sugar. Remove from heat and add the cream in two batches. Again, the mixture will boil and bubble, toil
and trouble, for a bit. Keep stirring until everything is well combined and the caramel is a milky tan color. As you stir and the sauce cools, it will thicken slightly into a more familiar caramel consistency. The milk and butter also stabilizes the caramel, so it won't harden into rock-candy and will stay a thick syrup.

When the caramel has cooled to room temperature (you should be able to dip your finger in for a taste test), pour it over the cheese cake. Sprinkle a few pinches of sea salt over the top and then sprinkle on the pecans.

Once the bottom of the pan is cool enough that you can touch it with your bare hands, cover and let the entire cake cool in the fridge. The longer it sits, the more the caramel will absorb into the nooks and crannies of the cheesecake. If you like this effect, let it sit for a few hours (for instance, while you're eating turkey n' stuffing). If you like your cake pristine and the layers separated, serve it a bit sooner.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Food: Last Minute Ideas

Here's some spin-on-the-traditional dishes that would be most excellent for Thanskgiving or just about any time between now and spring (click on the food name to link to the article or recipe):

Ok, so this went from a list of yummy Thanksgiving-esque foods that I've come across recently to "Foods I Want to Eat Right Now" that I came across as I was finding the links to all the first foods. Ah, well. S'all good!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Books: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road
by Cormac McCarthy

Quickie Synopsis: A man and his son journey south--always south--through a barren, desolate, post-Apocalyptic world. The landscape, the air, the sky--they are all filled with ashes. The vegetation is dead, burned to a crisp and frozen in time. Along the road are abandoned pieces of humanity: cars with melted tires, empty houses falling inward upon themselves, luggage abandoned and picked over by people moving south. It is always raining and cold. There are no birds or deer or animals of any kind, and the only humans that the boy and his father meet are either near death, insane, or predators.


This is not a light-hearted or uplifting book by any kind of standard. And I read it in great big gulps over the course of about two days. Even when I put it down, I felt myself constantly pulled back toward that world, its struggle for survival, and Cormac McCarthy's stark, biblical language.

The Road is a book that must be read all at once to be truly appreciated and understood. It is told in short snippets no longer than a paragraph or two and in one long continuous sequence with no breaks for chapters. The effect reinforces the feeling of disjointed, confused reality, a reality that feels like it begins in the middle of a sentence and ends before the speaker has finished speaking. The story, the characters, the dialogue, the language, the writing, the pace, the structure of the book: all these aspects work together in perfect harmony to continually reinforce the themes of the book like a symphony or a force of nature that builds on itself without any seeming effort on the part of the crafter. The reader walks next to the man and his son, sees what they see as they are first seeing it, feels what they feel, judges their actions and experiences just as they judge themselves. McCarthy has achieved a work of master craftsmanship in this book.

This is a story of apocalypse--the worst apocalypse imaginable, the one that is preached by every present-day prophet with a bullhorn, and the one that is often dismissed as being alarmist. I am also guilty of the dismissal, and yet as I read McCarthy's book, I found myself constantly thinking, "Yes, this is how it would be. This is how humanity would end."

But the book is not just a warning of some possible dystopian future; The Road can also be read as commentary on the increasing soullessness of human society, the psychic wasteland of the spirit as evidenced by shootings in schools, corruption and immorality at the highest levels of our government, increasing incidences of suicides and mental illness, bystanders to violent crime who turn away or--worse--take pictures on their camera-phone instead of stepping in. The wasteland is both literal and metaphorical: a city ghetto, a suburb of perfect green lawns, a refugee camp, a prison, a person's mind. I'm not saying--and nor do I think McCarthy is saying--that we all need to get a little more of that old time religion. Rather, by putting his reader directly into this terrifying landscape, I think McCarthy aims to bring the apathy and despondency into focus and to show us what's really at stake here. And what's at stake is our souls.

I feel that it is just as crucial to have books like The Road as it is to have books like Savage Inequalities and Manufacturing Consent because it tells what is real and true without artifice or angles or even statistics. The nightmare being told in this book is alarmist, but it's a nightmare that needs to be faced in order to be understood. It's already around us and choosing not to face it only makes the nightmare more real. The Road will never be a best seller. It will be read quietly, alone, and then slipped back on a shelf while the reader walks away--thoughts turned inward, steps slowed, tongue softly touching lips, fingers checking all the locks.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Books: The Memory Keeper's Daughter

The Memory Keeper's Daughter
by Kim Edwards

Quickie Synopsis: When his wife goes into labor during a freak March snow storm, Dr. David Henry is forced to handle the delivery himself. The first baby is a fine, healthy boy; but the second infant, a twin girl delivered moments later, shows obvious signs of having Down's Syndrome. Dr. Henry makes a split-second decision to send the infant to an institution and tells his wife that the baby died. The nurse charged with the baby girl finds herself unable to leave her at the institution, and in a split-second decision of her own, decides to disappear to another city and raise the child on her own. The Memory Keeper's Daughter is the chronicle of these parallel families. Dr. Henry's son Paul is raised in a household filled with grief over the believed death of his sister and layers of deceit between his parents. His "lost" twin Phoebe thrives in the unconventional family that surrounds and loves her, and she grows into a happy, well-adjusted young woman.


Kim Edward's debut novel is born of those "what if?" questions that lurk at the back of every parents' mind: What if my child is born with a disability? What if my baby dies? What will I do then? In The Memory Keeper's Daughter, each character is forced to confront a different 'what if?" scenario: Dr. Henry gives away his child in an effort to spare his wife and himself greater suffering in the future; Norah, his wife, finds herself suffocated with grief from the death of a child; Caroline raises a child with Down's, constantly afraid of doing something 'wrong' or failing in her devotion. Each character represents the life of "what might have been" for each of the other characters had different decisions been made, but unlike Sartre's version of hell in No Exit, these characters gradually do find a kind of peace.

This is a technically ambitious novel, as is any novel that attempts to span entire lifetimes and catalogue each small triumph and failure of all its characters. As a result, the pace constantly oscillates between slow motion and giant leaps--I often found myself totally hooked into a particular situation only to turn the page and discover that we have leaped forward five years and the event I was so enthralled by is now ancient history for the characters in the book. This left me feeling disconnected from the characters and vaguely annoyed at Edwards for constantly wrenching my attention somewhere else. I got the feeling that Edwards didn't believe that her characters or the world she had created could stand on their own without having every detail meticulously plotted, right down to the last arch of an eyebrow and existential crisis. Instead of seeming to evolve naturally, the plot and character development felt more like an over planned road trip. I really think this novel could have benefited from a little less control on the part of the author and a little more trust in her own abilities as a writer.

And her abilities are many! I respect any author who can make us genuinely care about characters who we'd pass on the street without a second glance and who can take the story of those common characters and create a saga of personal identification and revelation. Edwards has all the earmarks of a masterful storyteller, and I look forward to seeing how she evolves.


Other good reads in the category of "ironic novels that chronicle the lives of middle-class families and their strained interpersonal relationships":

Zadie Smith, On Beauty
Charles Baxter, Saul & Patsy
Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections
Ali Smith, The Accidental

Friday, November 10, 2006

Knitting: Laptop Cozy, Take...4?!?!

All right, y'all, I don't think there's anything else I can do to tweak, fiddle, or otherwise alter my little laptop cozy. I think it's actually finished. For reals this time. I ran it through the washer again, sans chickpeas, to try and felt the little baubles. It was a mixed success. Here are the before and after shots:

Here's the before (click on the picture to enlarge):
And here's the after:
The biggest problem was inconsistency in how the different sized baubles felted. The larger ones near the bottom of the bag (like the one in the foreground of the 'after' picture) didn't really felt very much but just kinda...spread out. There are a few other large baubles on the bag that spread out so much that they don't really poof anymore and really just blend in with the background. The baubles in the middle felted the best. They are just a little felty and still have just the right amount of poof:

The smallest baubles near the top of the bag felted well, but were so small that they tended to sink into the fabric of the bag and all but disappear. Meh. So now I know. If you want to felt the bag but not the baubles, go with medium sized baubles with 2-5 chickpeas. If you want baubles with a more felted look, do medium sized baubles with 4-8 chickpeas and then felt the bag a second time.

The bag itself did end up felting more. The fabric will eventually reach a point where it's as felted as it will get and not shrink further. Apparently I was not at that point with my bag. The final bag is a big smaller than I'd hoped for, but still completely serviceable. Again, so now I know. If you want to felt a second time, be sure to stop the felting the bag a little sooner on the first round, take out the chick peas, and then felt again until you're satisfied with the size.

Ok, so now I need some handles on my bag to complete my crafty-metro-girl-on-the-go! ensemble
I was initially nervous about cutting the handles because it's, you know, permanent and all that, but I took a deep breath and did it.

First I laid a piece of clear packing tape across the bag approximately where I was going to cut it. My bag just so happened to be exactly 12 inches across and a 4 inch handle sounded good to me, so I measured 4 inches on either side and two inches from the top, marking this on the tape:
I almost had to close my eyes while I cut through the felt. I was so paranoid that it hadn't felted enough and the whole thing would just start to unravel. (If it's felted properly, the fibers will be so twisted that you can literally cut it like fabric.) :

Voila! Cut felt! You can see here that the felted fabric is really quite thick--that's a good quarter of an inch thick and quite sturdy. Whew.
Now for some action pix! Here's the crafty-metro-girl-on-the-go! ready to swing by the farmer's market or pop by the public library for some good weekend reads:But this is a laptop cozy after all, so does my laptop really fit inside?! I was nervous since the bag felted so much more the second time. While it was drying, I kept stretching it out, trying to get it to keep as large a shape as possible:Ok, it fits sideways, but will it go all the way in?!
Ah, just barely. My laptop fits inside, but I can't pick it up by the handles. But you know what? That's actually just fine because the only time I'm transporting my laptop, I'd actually prefer to carry it in my backpack. This laptop cozy will be an extra protective sleeve inside my bag.

So final verdict? Complete satisfaction, plus inspiration to knit more bags and continue experimenting with the bauble idea. I've been thinking about enhancing the baubles during the initial knitting stage by doing some short row shaping. Not only would this make the bauble more pronounced and less susceptible to flattening out during the second round of felting, but it would enable me to knit the baubles in different colors from the background. Oh, man, I love knitting.

For the evolution on the laptop cozy:
Part I: Click HERE
Part II: Click HERE
Part III: Click HERE

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Cooking: NYTimes article on the "Secret of Great Bread"

I'm so shocked, I don't even know what to say. Bread? That you don't knead? And it's baked in a dutch oven? Wa-huuuh? My dad forwarded me this article from the New York Times earlier today and I'm still processing. And of course I have to try this immediately--anyone have a handy dutch oven I can borrow?!

"The Secret of Great Bread: Let Time Do the Work" by Mark Bittman:

P.S. Let me know if that link doesn't work or if you're asked for a password.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Cooking: Il Lasagna Perfetto

You should all know by now that I love to cook. No doubt about it. But what I do not love is cooking every day. In fact, if I have to cook two days in a row, I get a bit cranky and start taking out my frustrations on the unsuspecting Engineer by muttering things under my breath like, "Though I may look and occasionally act like a 1940's housewife, I am not a 1940's housewife, mister." * He usually grins and says, "Pizza, then? Where are my keys?"

This is why I love love L-O-V-E love making humungoid meals
one or two times a week that will feed us both for lunch and dinner over several days. Luckily, the Engineer and I are both fairly monogastronomic (yes, I made up that word) and don't require a lot of variety in our diet to keep us satisfied. Throw in a few meals of eggs n' toast and a coupla stir fries and we're happy clams.

Whenever I come across a new recipe that I think has potential for deliciousness, I immediately begin to consider of two things: 1) How can I double or triple the amount of servings in this Bad Larry, and 2) How can I make it healthier? (The answer to both questions, by the way, is usually "add more vegetables." Just don't forget to adjust the spices.) I typically follow the recipe exactly one time and then modify on subsequent repetitions.

I've been working on my lasagna for about two years now--how's that for tenacious? My family was staying in a rented cabin tucked into the woods somewhere near Lake Superior--a winter vacation tradition in my family. The cabin came equipped with hand sewn quilts, a gorgeous view of one of Minnesota's 10,000 lakes, and a little kitchen of its own. After we were settled into our various cozy nooks, my mother started making "I'm-cooking-who-wants-to-help?" noises in the kitchen and organizing the various ingredients for lasagna.
Lasagna was a regular meal in our house--in fact I think it was my all-time-favorite food for a good chunk of elementary school, much to my mother's delight and disbelief. But this was the first time I consciously helped my mother make lasagna and recognized it as a meal that I could replicate for myself. It was a light bulb kind of moment.

At this time, my mother had been on WeightWatchers for a few years, but I hadn't yet started. As we got everything together, my mom explained the various substitutions she made to make the lasagna WeightWatcher's friendly: substituting lo-fat cottage cheese for
ricotta, using only 10 lasagna noodles over two layers, fattening up those layers with lots of veggies, and using a tomato sauce like Healthy Choice. I was intrigued, if skeptical, and was incredibly surprised at how fabulous it turned out. This lasagna did not taste like the lo-cal, limp, healthy-shmealthy dish I was expecting, and I was very relieved to see that the servings were much larger than a postage stamp. Mom's technique of using dry lasagna noodles in the layers rendered noodles that were al dente and richly flavored with absorbed tomato juice. Every bite was full of perfectly cooked vegetables, a bit of meat, a bit of noodle, and a bit of cheese--chewy and moist and perfect.

When I went on WeightWatchers myself a little over a year ago, I made Mom's recipe for lasagna often, but somehow it
wasn't quite as good as I remembered it. And although it was already significantly healthier than regular lasagna, I still grumbled about how much of my daily food allowance a slice would use up. Did I really need to use tomato sauce, or would crushed tomatoes work just as well? Did I need to use a whole pound of hamburger, or could a smaller amount still give that same meaty flavor and chew in every bite? To the kitchen I scurried.

I didn't go completely bananas and make 10 batches of lasagna in a weekend, but I kept notes on each batch I made and tried new little tweaks and twiddles each time. Crushed tomatoes does indeed make a good substitute for tomato sauce, though the flavor was a bit metallic and acidic until Mom suggested sprinkling just a touch of sugar over each layer of tomatoes. You don't taste the sugar specifically in the finished lasagna, but the metallic flavor was gone. Turns out that you can also get away with less meat (or meat-substitute if you're a veggie)--about 3/4 of a pound was good, and if you were really gung ho, you could happy reduce that further
or even cut the meat out all together. Just veggies makes a terrific lasagna on its own. I also tried using non-fat ricotta cheese and decided that I liked that traditional Italian flavor and mouthfeel. These three changes, along with experiments on spices and amounts of spices, has given me a purty darn near perfect lasagna, which I've now happily eaten for two weeks straight. But hey, that's monogastronomic ol' me.
Il Lasagna Perfetto

10 dry lasagna noodles (not 'no boil')
1/2 - 3/4 lb of ground lean turkey, lean beef, or meat substitute
1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
2 1/2 tsp sugar
1 onion--diced
1 small eggplant, zucchini, or summer squash--diced
1 red bell pepper--diced
1 pkg baby bella mushrooms or portabella mushrooms--diced
1 c. non-fat ricotta cheese

1/2 c. low-fat cottage cheese
2 c. low-fat shredded cheese
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp chili powder
1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp dried thyme
1/8 cup of water or chicken broth

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

1. Mix all the chopped vegetables together in a large bowl and combine with all the spices. Taste a piece of eggplant or mushroom and adjust the spices if necessary--the mix should actually taste a bit too salty at this point.

2. Combine ricotta and cottage cheese together in a small bowl

3. In a 9x13 casserole dish or baking pan, spread a light layer of crushed tomatoes and sprinkle 1/2 tsp of the sugar over the top. Arrange a layer of 5 noodles--in my pan, I can fit 4 noodles length-wise and then have to break off about one inch on the fifth to fit it in along the side.

4. Spread half of the ricotta-cottage cheese mixture over the noodles. Then spread half of the veggies and half of the meat. Finally layer on about 1 cup of cheese and half the can of crushed tomatoes. Sprinkle 1 tsp of sugar over the tomatoes.

5. Add another layer of noodles and repeat step 4. Reserve a bit of cheese for the topping.

6. Swish the water or chicken broth (I prefer stock) in the empty can of tomatoes and dribble evenly over the top of the lasagna.

7. Cover the lasagna with a double layer of tinfoil and bake for 1 hour. After an hour, check the to see how done the noodles are and the onions are. I usually need to bake it covered for another 15 minutes. When the onions taste just a bit under done, uncover the lasagna and top with the reserved cheese. Bake uncovered for another 10-15 minutes or until the cheese is completely melted and a bit brown.

Let the lasagna cool for about 10 minutes and then cut into 12 portions.

WeightWatchers: If you made any substitutions or adjustments, I recommend tallying everything up for yourself to be on the safe side. Made with the above ingredients,12 portions is about 4.5 points per portion. If you're being really strict, you can cut it into 16 portions for about 3.25 points each, but, honestly, those portions are a bit measly--ok for lunch, but probably not enough for dinner unless you were also eating a side dish.

*For the record, I would like to state that while I definitely do the lion's share of the cooking in our household, the Engineer is always a willing and able sous chef. I admit to having tendencies toward control-freak-ism and have been known to hyperventilate if the onions are not diced to proper proportions. I'm much better than I used to be, mostly because I was came to realize that I needed to chill out or my sous chef would not be quite so willing and able. Still, we find it works best to divide tasks by type: I'm in charge of cutting and stir frying, and the Engineer is in charge of the pilaf; I'm in charge of toast and the Engineer is in charge of scrambling the eggs; and so on. *shrug* It works for us.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Saturday morning rambling

This morning--right now--is my ideal morning. The Engineer woke me up with a rub on my back at 7:30 (good lad, that Engineer), and we went out for coffee. It's sunny and crisp outside. I wore the blue felt mittens my cousin gave me for Christmas a few years ago and a burgundy-colored stocking cap, which I love despite the fact that the seams always leave unbecoming ridges pressed into my forehead. On the way to City Feed Coffeeshop, the Engineer and I talked about circuits (which the Engineer is studying right now) and the series finale of Six Feet Under (which we finally watched last night). I held my coffee in both hands the entire walk home, just smelling the coffee as I listened to the Engineer jabber and occasionally adding a comment or two of my own. A perfectly made americano is an ideal morning all on its own.

Back home, I toasted bread while the Engineer scrambled eggs, and then we parted ways for the day--the Engineer to his office in the back room, and me to my nook in the front room with blanket and coffee and toast and book. I just started reading Saul and Patsy by Charles Baxter and so far I'm loving it. It's been a while since I've read a good, solid work of fiction that isn't trying to be anything except a good, solid work of fiction. It's a nice breather. In fact, I think this book, which is set in a tiny Midwestern town and profiles the lives of a quirky young married couple, is partially responsible for putting me in this nostalgic, idyllic mood.

Soon I will get antsy and feel compelled to move on with the events of the day, but that's the charm of an ideal morning: it doesn't last forever. And it doesn't happen every day. It happens just often enough for you to really appreciate them. In fact, the ideal morning is less of a destination than it is an oasis that you unwittingly stumble upon. And when you've had your fill, it will gently propel you back into the wilderness, sated and ready.

A few tasting notes and miscellany:

*A perfectly made americano really is an ideal morning all on its own. Americanos are shots of espresso diluted in hot water. One story I heard during my days as a barista says that this drink got its name because Americans travelling in Europe found the taste European coffee--essentially shots of espresso--too strong for their palate, and they asked for water to be added to the cafe
so consistently that a new drink was born. It's deliciously bitter and dark, and I recommend drinking it black. Unlike regular brewed coffee that can have a harsh acidic aftertaste, an americano leaves a slight taste of caramel that sits on the tongue between sips. I also find americanos smoother and slightly thicker than regular coffee, a texture I enjoy because it makes me more conscious of what I'm drinking and aware of the drink as more than a convenient way to wake up in the morning.

*Scrambled eggs are one of those great American dishes that is in essence quite basic and yet everyone you talk to has a slightly different way of making them and a slightly different opinion about what qualifies as The Best. The Engineer is the Master Scrambler in our household. He pre-heats a flat pan over low heat for several minutes while he cracks and mixes the eggs. He adds about one tablespoon of cottage cheese per egg being cooked, which makes the scrambled eggs more fluffy and moist. He melts about one tablespoon of butter in the pan and then adds the eggs. Instead of stirring the eggs frantically, the Engineer scrambles by scraping the eggs in long even strokes from top to bottom and side to side, and they're done in about a minute. Perfect every time. But then again, he is the Master Scrambler.

*Some of you--especially those of you who knew me in my teenage years--might be wondering about and slightly disbelieving of the fact that I got up at 7:30 am on a Saturday. This is no lie, my friends, but the latest development in my transformation from an insomniac to a normal sleeper.
I've been taking sleep medication (first trazedone and then amitryptolene) to help me sleep for about seven years. At various points, I tried to wean myself off of it, but always ended up back on them. I find Western medicine to be generally a fine thing, but my doctors have been particularly unsupportive of going off of this medication and didn't have much advice for how to sleep normally without it. This past August, I called it quits. One night I had a pill in my hand and just...couldn't do it. I decided that I wasn't sleeping very well on the medication, so how bad could it be off of the medication? Sure enough, the medicine wasn't making much of a difference and I found my sleep about the same before and after. I would have 'good' nights of sleeping solidly through the night, and then several nights in a row of lying awake for hours before finally falling into a fitful sleep.

A month or so ago, I came across a book called Say Good Night to Insomnia by Gregg Jacobs, and despite the EXTREMELY ridiculous title, decided to give it a try because it sure couldn't hurt. Indeed, there are some bits in the book that are a bit on the ridiculous side, but there are also some real gems that I've duly tried and that have seemed to help. The main messages I have gotten from it are "you're probably sleeping more than you think," "you'll always fall asleep eventually," and "no one has died from insomnia." If you're already a normal sleeper, these three concepts won't be that revolutionary to you, but they drastically altered my thinking and negativity about insomnia. Instead of being this thing that ruled my life, insomnia was something that sure sucked but that could also be dealt with.

The main strategy in dealing with insomnia, according to the book, is to keep a sleep diary tracking when you went to bed, how many times you got up in the night, how long, what time you got up, how many total hours you slept and how good quality that sleep was. To my surprise, I found that I was sleeping more than I thought--an average of 6.5 - 7 hours per night--but that the quality wasn't very good. The next step in the book is to reduce the number of hours you allow yourself for sleep each night to the same number of hours you typically average for sleep. The reasoning behind this is that if you know you're only going to be sleeping [X] number of hours, you might as well only be in bed for those [X] number of hours--the average sleep is the same regardless of time spent in bed. This will make your bed a place associated only with sleep and only associated with sleep in a positive way, will theoretically increase quality of sleep because the sleep is condensed, and will also increase the number of hours you are awake during the daytime and thus make you more sleepy when bedtime comes. So this is why I'm going to bed at midnight and getting up at 7:30 every day--weekdays and weekends. And it's going pretty well so far! I still wouldn't call myself a normal sleeper, but I'm definitely less of a sleep-deprived zombie during the day. Thus ends my Long Winded Speech on Insomnia (whew--I really got going on that subject, didn't I?). For any insomniacs or restless sleepers out there, I definitely recommend this book. It might not be The Answer but it's certainly a beginning.

*A sneak preview of some upcoming posts:

  • a recipe for My Favorite Lasagna
  • adventures in home-made crackers
  • muffin recipe tests for a contest I'm entering
  • book reviews of Blankets, The Nasty Bits, and The Memory-Keeper's Daughter
  • introducing The Engineer's Christmas present--the boyfriend sweater
  • and finally--as promised--I am going to felt that laptop cozy again--and I rilly promise to do it this time