Continuing Spooky Season

Truly Devious is the first book in a YA mystery series. Be forewarned that only two of the planned three books are out (the last one is scheduled for release in January 2020).

Stevie (short for Stephanie) Bell is a new student to the Ellingham Academy, a boarding school in Vermont that was founded in the 1930s. Shortly after the founding, Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter were kidnapped and possibly killed. A culprit was found, but no one believes that he did it. Stevie wants to be the real Sherlock Holmes, and her mission at Ellingham Academy (in the present time) is to solve the mystery.

The past mystery is nicely mysterious, the setting of a secluded school without parents is handled in the best hothouse-for-bizarreness way, there’s a romance story that is very much not the point, and while there is also a current murder, it does get solved. So even though the past mystery is going to take three books to solve (probably), there is a sense of resolution and completeness to this book.

I enjoyed Truly Devious and have put the second book in the series on my hold list at the library.

A short review of a mystery that was… fine

The Chatelet Apprentice is a fine first mystery novel, doing a good job of introducing the characters, setting the scene of mid-1700s Paris (Paris is important because it puts our detective into glancing contact with King Louis XV), and generally easing you into a new mystery series.

That said, I had a terribly hard time getting into this book. It was a slow read the whole way through, and while it wasn’t bad, it was maybe more laid back than I wanted? I don’t know. It is translated from the French, and so, since it was written for the French market, maybe moves at a different pace? Or maybe I’m just not used to reading cozy mysteries and as a result am not used to them anymore.

Regardless, if you’re looking for a new mystery series or fiction books about historical France, try out The Chatelet Apprentice.

Carnitas

Carnitas has always been a bit mysterious to this white woman from the midwest. It’s delicious, yes, but could I tell you what’s in it? Nope. But! We found a recipe, and it turned out to be one of those recipes that was basically: put a bunch of ingredients in a pot and then walk away for a couple of hours. I can do that. Then we had some yummy tacos for dinner – plus leftovers.

3.5lb-4.b boneless pork butt, fat cap trimmed to 0.125″ thick, cut into 2″ chunks
2c water (we ended up using more)
1 small onion, peeled and halved
2T juice from one lime
1t ground cumin
1t dried oregano
2 bay leaves
salt & pepper
1 orange, halved

Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 300F. Combine all ingredients (1t salt, 0.5t pepper) except the orange in a large dutch over (the liquid should just cover the meat). Juice the orange into a bowl and remove any seeds. Put the juice and the spent orange halves into a pot. Bring to a simmer on the stovetop, then cover and put into the oven until the meat is soft and falls apart when prodded with a fork, about two hours.

Remove the pot from the oven and turn the oven to broil. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the meat to a bowl; remove the orange halves, onion, and bay leaves from the cooking liquid and discard. Place the pot over high heat and simmer the liquid until thick and syrupy, 8-12 minutes. You should have about 1c of liquid.

Using two forks, pull each piece of pork in half. Fold in the reduced liquid, season with salt & pepper to taste. Spread the pork in an even layer on a wire rack set inside a baking sheet or broiler pan. Place the sheet on the lower-middle rack and broil until the top of the meat is well browned but not charred and the edges are slightly crisp, 5-8 minutes. Flip the meat over and continue to broil until the other side is the same, another 5-8 minutes.

Serve immediately with tortillas & garnishes. (Potential garnishes: corn tortillas, lime wedges, minced onion, fresh cilantro, sliced radishes, sour cream)

An oldie but a goodie

I mentioned in an earlier post that I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump, despite the 60-some-odd books on my to-read pile. (Hell, maybe because of the 60-ish books on that to read pile.) So naturally, I pulled Brideshead Revisited off the shelf. I mean, what better way to deal with a slump than reading Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece?

Because it is a masterpiece. It manages to be both silly and serious – the relationships between people are both lighthearted and the most important parts of our lives. This relationship – or rather these relationships that Charles Ryder has with both Sebastian and Julia Flyte, of the family that owns Brideshead, form who he is. I’d call it a coming-of-age story, except that it extends well into Charles’ 20s. Tonally, The Secret History owes it a debt.

If you’ve let this one pass you by, consider Brideshead Revisited. It’s worth your time.

Chicken Cacciatore

This chicken cacciatore recipe is an old one from the October 2000 Cook’s Illustrated. It’s one of the first things I learned how to cook, and has become comfort food for me. Pair it with some good bread, and this is a hearty meal that makes me feel at home.

8 bone-in chicken thighs (about three pounds, the thighs I got this time were HUGE and four were about 2.5lbs, so I just went with that)
salt & pepper
1t olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
6oz portobello mushroom caps, cut into 0.75″ cubes
4 medium garlic cloves, minced
1.5T flour (Yes, I used flour. Feel free to sub in cornstarch)
1.5c dry red wine (not merlot, nothing oaked)
0.5c chicken stock
1-14.5oz can diced tomatoes, drained
2t minced fresh thyme
1 piece parmesan cheese rind
2t minced fresh sage

Season chicken with salt & pepper. Heat oil in dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add four thighs, skin-side down, and cook until skin in crisp & brown, about 5 minutes. Flip and brown on other side, another 5 minutes. Transfer to plate, and brown remaining thighs, transferring to plate when they’re done.

Drain off all but 1T fat from the pot. Add onion, mushrooms, and 0.5t salt. Sauté over medium-high heat until moisture evaporates and vegetables begin to brown, 6-8 minutes. Meanwhile, remove and discard skin from thighs. Add garlic to pot, and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in flour and cook, stirring constantly, about 1 minute. Add mine, scraping pot bottom to loosen brown bits. Stir in stock, tomatoes, thyme, cheese rind, and pepper to taste. Submerge chicken pieces in liquid and bring to boil; cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer until chicken is tender and cooked through, about 45 minutes, turning chicken pieces halfway through cooking.

Discard cheese rind, stir in sage, adjust seasonings with salt & pepper, and serve.

On Being Angry

I saw a tweet a couple of weeks ago, wondering why the media was continuing to focus on men and their idea about the 2020 election when the real story was how angry women are. How done we are with all this bullshit, the casual harassment, the serial rapist that’s in the White House, every story that has come out from #MeToo. (Because y’all of course: #MeToo.)

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo takes all of that anger – presumably her anger – and puts it into Alex Stern. She is a former teenaged drug addict who is found surrounded by a few people, mostly men, who had been brutally murdered. She had no blood on her, but she was so high that she was never a suspect. Oh, and she can see ghosts. The plot starts when, in the aftermath, Yale decides it needs her to keep their secret societies in check. The eight main societies each specialize in a particular type of magic, and a ninth house keeps an eye on each of them to make sure nothing gets out of hand or the students in them don’t get too greedy. Alex wants to be good, wants to fit in, but things keep happening. Eventually, her anger proves to be a very useful tool solving the central mystery.

It is scary and good and depicts rape, sexual assualt, and college students being the assholes that college students can be. Especially when alcohol is involved. It also features them occasionally being hit over the head with blunt objects when that happens.

But mostly, Ninth House wants to remind you how good and productive anger can be. I am here for it. You should be too.

Miso-glazed chicken with mushrooms

Chicken and mushrooms is a classic combination. It’s one of my favorites. I saw this recipe in a Milk Street magazine and had to try it. It’s pretty good, very full of umami flavor, which was probably my generous hand with the miso. I served it with white rice, I’m sure there are other good combinations to pair it with.

0.5c mirin
6T white miso
2T soy sauce (I, as always, substituted gluten-free tamari)
1T finely grated ginger
0.5t ground black pepper
3lbs bone-in skin-on chicken thighs
1lb cremini mushrooms, trimmed & quartered
1 bunch scallions, cut into 2″ lengths, whites and greens separated
1T unseasoned rice vinegar

Mist a foil-lined baking sheet with cooking spray. (I skipped the foil for environmental reasons and scrubbed for awhile to get the pan clean, just FYI). In a large bowl, whisk the mirin, miso, soy sauce, ginger, and pepper. Cut two parallel slashes on each chicken thigh, slicing down to the bone. Add to miso mixture, and turn to coat, working the mixture into the slashes. Place skin-side up on baking sheet.

Add mushrooms and scallion whites to now-empty bowl; toss to coat. Add to the baking sheet, scattering around the chicken. Roast on the middle rack at 450F until everything is well-browned and the chicken thighs reach 175F, 30-40 minutes.

Transfer chicken to serving platter and spoon mushroom mixture over it. Sprinkle with the scallion greens. Pour pan juices into a bowl; skim fat & add rice vinegar. Mix, taste, season with pepper to taste. Serve with the chicken.

Revisiting an old love

I read The Secret History about a million times while in college. So reading it again was a bit more like comfort than exploring anything new or looking to discover anything new.

And yet, there is something in a book you can re-read that many times. While in college, I was in love with the over the top aesthetic of this book. Now, it’s hard not to look at the characters and see tragedy written all over them. Henry, the scholar who has always been able to do what he wants; Charles and Camilla, twins who can’t live apart, not even when they need to; Francis, who needs to be allowed to be himself when he’s not at college; Bunny, fatuous and full of charm but irritating as hell; and Richard, who just wants to fit in.

I still love the aesthetic of it, the romanticism of a small college in a New England town, the fascination with beauty that is both the author’s and Richard’s, who also happens to be our narrator.

I can’t at all tell you what it would be like to approach this book, written pre-internet, as an adult almost 30 years later. All I can tell you is that I still love The Secret History, whether its because the book is great or because I loved it so much as a twenty-year-old. I will always recommend it.

Slumps and books I’m not sure are any good

I’ve been in something of a reading slump lately. Including with this book. I started Paris in the Present Tense ready for its atmosphere and characters and sank into the first chapter. After that, every time I picked it up, I read slightly less and was slightly less interested in the story. Once I was halfway through the book I found myself not caring almost at all.

I don’t think it was the story, about an older man, a failed musician, who is still fit and exercises daily, whose grandson is dying and through a series of events ends up in a street fight and kills a young man (who, it should be said, was about to kill him). You root for him, but I’m not sure you should. And I didn’t care enough to explore the middle ground.

But was it the book or was it my slump? It’s hard to tell, but I can’t recommend Paris in the Present Tense, despite my initial delight with it.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

I mentioned last week that I made chocolate chip cookies for dessert along with the miso-glazed salmon. They were delicious, but because gluten-free cookies go stale so quickly, I ended up taking them into work and everyone ate them before I thought to get a photo. What I’m saying: these are a delicious cookie that even non-gluten-free folks will enjoy.

(Recipe, as usual, adapted from ATK’s How Can It Be Gluten Free)

5oz gluten-free flour
1t baking soda
0.75t xanthan gum
0.5t salt
8T (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
5.25oz light brown sugar
2.33oz granulated sugar
1 large egg
2T milk
1T vanilla extract
7.5oz chocolate chips

Whisk flour, baking soda, xanthan gum, and salt in bowl, set aside. Whisk butter and sugars together in large bowl until well-combined and smooth. Whisk in egg, milk, and vanilla, and continue until smooth. Stir in flour mixture with rubber spatula and mix until soft and homogeneous. Fold in chocolate chips. Cover bowl and let rest for 30 minutes.

Adjust oven rack to middle and heat oven to 350F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Use two soupspoons, working with about 1.5T of dough at a time, portion dough and space ~2″ apart on sheets. Bake cookies, one sheet at a time, until golden brown, 11-13 minutes, rotating sheet halfway through baking.

Let cookies cool on sheet for 5 minutes, the transfer to wire rack. Serve warm. Cookies are best eaten day of, but can be stored in air-tight container for up to 1 day.