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book club

book review, recipe

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane + Scallion Pancakes

Lisa See’s historical fiction novel The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is a family saga that begins in a remote mountain village in China in the late 1980s. Life there revolves around tradition and tea farming, until a stranger arrives, bringing a glimpse into the modern world — and a proposal that will transform all of their lives.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane Book Cover

Interspersed with Li-Yan’s story, as she struggles against the traditions of her village and family but fully embraces the rituals and importance of tea in their culture, is the story of a young girl growing up in Los Angeles, searching for a key to her past. The story is full of heart, and the plot full of coincidence. Some of the village’s traditions were a bit hard to stomach, but I think Li-Yan’s personal rebellion against them made her more relatable, at least to me.

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book review, recipe

Artemis + Double Ginger Ice Cream

I absolutely loved Andy Weir’s The Martian. When I read it, I recommended it to anyone and everyone, and now that I blog, I’ve even included it on a few bookish lists (here and here). So, I was more than a little hesitant to pick up his second novel – hello, high expectations! – and managed to avoid it for about six months. That is, until Artemis was selected as our next read for one of my book clubs. I had no choice but to take the leap.

Artemis Book Cover, Andy Weir

In Artemis, which is the only city on the moon in the 2080s, our main character Jasmine, or “Jazz,” is a porter who smuggles on the side to make extra income. When a regular client brings her an offer with a payday too good to pass up, Jazz’s life takes a dangerous turn.

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book review, recipe

Rabbit Cake + Vanilla Pound Cake

I got the opportunity to read Annie Harnett’s novel Rabbit Cake recently when it was selected for my office’s Diversity Book Club, but it first grabbed my attention when it was recommended on a podcast as a book pairing for the classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Though nothing alike in tone or subject matter, I see the similarities in the wizened child narrators – Scout, in TKAM of course, and in this contemporary novel, 11-year-old animal-loving Elvis.

I found Annie’s story to be quirky but heartwarming. Elvis is a smart, curious little girl who wormed its way into my heart. We meet her shortly after the sudden death of her mother, who drowned in a sleepwalking accident. Scientifically-minded, Elvis decides to follow a mourning chart that is meant to help her know how long to grieve. For an 11-year-old, she is doing her best, but the rest of her family isn’t exactly thriving. Her older sister is also affected by sleepwalking and her father deals with his grief by buying a parrot and wearing his late wife’s lipstick and bathrobe.    

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book review, recipe

Bel Canto + Tres Leches Cake with Dulce de Leche Glaze

I read somewhere once that Bel Canto is the book you should start with if you want to give Ann Patchett a try. As a result, it’s been on my TBR and my bookshelf for a while now. You may recall that I actually read her newest novel Commonwealth first, but this is the novel that caused me to truly fall in love with Ann Patchett’s writing and storytelling.

At first glance, this wouldn’t seem like a novel I would enjoy. Not much happens by way of plot – in the beginning, a group of rebels interrupt a birthday celebration in order to capture the unknown South American country’s president and take on a whole mansion-full of hostages. That is sort of where the plot gets stuck, until the very end. The real story is in the growth of the characters – all of them so rich and well-developed. The setting, too, is unique, and it’s one that really lets the characters come to life, almost unexpectedly.

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book review, recipe

Tell the Wolves I’m Home + Tuscan Bean and Prosciutto Stew

Carol Rifka Brunt’s debut novel Tell the Wolves I’m Home tells a story about life and death, forbidden relationships, and how family is always more complicated than it seems. I selected it as my book featuring a character with a debilitating illness for the Book Challenge by Erin and was excited when it was chosen as a recent book club selection as well.

It’s 1987, and fourteen-year-old June has just lost her Uncle Finn to AIDS. He was her confidant and her best friend and she struggles to deal with his untimely disappearance from her life. She no longer has any reason to visit his eclectic New York City apartment every Sunday, where he was working to complete a portrait of her and her sister Greta. Visiting the Cloisters, a favorite pastime of theirs, will never be the same. Continue Reading

book review, recipe

Snow Falling on Cedars + Salmon with Strawberry Salsa

Do you ever choose a book based on your location or season? I’m not generally one to choose a book based on the time of year, though I’ll admit it can be quite nice to read a book about Christmas in December, and sometimes it feels like a disconnect to read about snow in the heat of summer. David Guterson’s novel Snow Falling on Cedars was a recent book club pick, and it was added to the list quite honestly because it had a title that sounded like it would make for a nice winter read.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story – which was published nearly 25 years ago now – Snow Falling on Cedars revolves around a murder case on a fictional island in Puget Sound. In 1954, a Japanese American man named Kabuo Miyamoto is charged with the murder of fellow salmon fisherman Carl Heine, who drowned under suspicious circumstances. The island was never exactly an inclusive paradise, but many families on the island were Japanese and were for the most part accepted – at least until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Needless to say, with the war less than a decade out, the murder case renews racial tensions on the island.

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book review, recipe

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society + Potato Peel Pie

Recently, my book club elected to read Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrow’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a charming piece of historical fiction about life on the British Channel Islands during and after WWII. It is a bit of a book about books, but more than that it’s about how literature can bring people together, unexpectedly, even in the worst of times.

In 1946 London, a mysterious man writes to Juliet Ashton because he somehow came to be in possession of one of her books and is looking for more by the same author, who he’s come to adore. Of course, as a reader, Juliet steps in to help him get the books he needs, and with that, she launches a friendly correspondence with him – and his fellow islanders. All of them belonged to an impromptu book club during the German wartime occupation of their home on Guernsey, and Juliet is beside herself to learn more about them.

While I was expecting a potentially difficult read, as many WWII novels tend to be (including The Nightingale and Lilac Girls), I was pleasantly surprised. There are some brief descriptions of time in the concentration camps, but it mostly serves as a way to provide the characters – who’ve survived the war at that point – with some closure. Book narratives that take place solely through letters can sometimes fall flat, but in this case, my whole book club enjoyed the choice. I thought it added to the charm.

Though the Guernsey Literary Society also boasts the name of a disgusting-sounding dish, the potato peel pie is mentioned only briefly in the novel. It is described as a pie made out of potato peels and something to do with beets. As I read, I was slightly horrified to think about making such a pie for this post. Luckily, I remembered my Book Club Cookbook and thought I recalled seeing this book listed in the index.

Sure enough! It listed a recipe for an “occupied” version, using just beets, potatoes (including the peels) and a bit of milk, but it also included a “non-occupied” version, which sounded delicious. I decided to make it for our book club meeting. 

Since we were meeting during the week and I don’t have a lot of time after work before everyone arrives, I got started the night before. Since the non-occupied version still includes potato peels, I made sure to scrub them thoroughly before peeling. Here is the after photo:

I peeled them as carefully as I could and layered them into the pie dish, making sure to completely cover the bottom.

While they baked in the oven, I cut the potatoes into large chunks and got them going in a pot of salted, boiling water on the stove.

After about 20 minutes in the oven, the potato peels were looking slightly crispy, so I pulled them out before they burned. I was surprised, however, to see that they’d all curled up and no longer completely covered the bottom of the pan – a bit of a disappointing crust in look only, as it still tasted delicious later.

Once the potatoes were fully cooked, I drained them and transferred them to a large bowl with some butter to mash them up with a hand mixer (my typical method, since I don’t actually own a manual masher). Then, I stirred in the milk, and once that was absorbed, added the cheddar cheese and sour cream as well.

Finally, I spread the whole mixture in the pie dish on top of the potato skins.

Because I wasn’t serving it until the next day, I covered it with plastic wrap and stored it in the fridge overnight. Then, prior to book club, I baked it for the first time. It was still cold from the fridge (not room temperature, or slightly warm as if I’d baked it immediately), so I cooked it for longer – closer to an hour.

Once it was melty, slightly bubbly on the edges with just a touch of brown on top, I removed it from the oven. My entire book club could smell it, and we were starving, so we didn’t wait the recommended 15 minutes before serving. It ended up being more like cheesy mashed potatoes – probably the best mashed potatoes I’ve ever had, honestly – than potato “pie” but everyone enjoyed it just the same. The crispy skins throughout added a pleasing texture.

From our book club to yours, we recommend checking out this charming novel before the movie comes to theaters in April. I, for one, always look forward to the opportunity to have a lively discussion about whether the book or movie is better (even though we all know the answer going in) – and who better to do that with than your favorite book-loving friends?

Annie Barrow’s Non-Occupied Potato Peel Pie

Make the potato peel pie from The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. 

Course Main Course
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour 30 minutes
Total Time 1 hour 45 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1½ - 2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes about 4 medium or 6 small potatoes
  • No beets
  • ½ cup
  • ½ cup milk
  • 1 stick butter, cut into pieces
  • 1¼ cups shredded cheddar cheese
  • and maybe some sour cream too, (about ¼ cup)

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Go ahead and use the peelings as the crust, but cook them first: Scrub potatoes and pat dry. Peel potato and lay peelings evenly in the bottom of a 9-inch pie pan. Place in oven and cook for about 15-20 minutes, because it would be nice if they were a little crispy. When they’re done, reduce oven heat to 350 degrees F.
  3. In the meantime, place potatoes in a large pot, cover with salted water, and boil until they’re soft, however long that takes (about 30-40 minutes). Then, drain the potatoes and mash them up with the butter until they’re nice and fluffy. Add milk slowly and stir until milk is absorbed. Stir in that delicious cheese and the sour cream, too, if you want it (and who wouldn’t?).
  4. Pour the potato mixture on top of the crispy skins. Then, put the pie in the oven for about 30 minutes until it’s all melty and glorious (and lightly browned). Allow to cool for about 15 minutes, until it sets. Serve warm. To reheat: Cover with foil and heat for 15-20 minutes in an oven preheated to 300 degrees F.

Recipe Notes

From: The Book Club Cookbook, pages 162-163

If, for whatever reason (say, book club), you need to make this the night before. I recommend stopping before you put the potato peel pie in the oven. Fill pan with the mashed potato mixture, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Remove from the fridge while you preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Bake for about 45 minutes to an hour (checking as you go) to ensure it’s heated through and then allow to cool before serving, per the above directions.

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book review, recipe

Behind Her Eyes + Spaghetti Carbonara

Every November, my Good Reads & Good Eats book club reads a spooky book. Since we meet on the first Tuesday of each month, this allows us to read it during October and our meeting usually ends up being right around Halloween. This year’s selection was Sarah Pinborough’s novel Behind Her Eyes. The thriller was released in January but it made for an excellent read this month, just creepy enough throughout with a twist at the end I didn’t see coming.

Thanks to the success of Gone Girl, the oft-called domestic thriller has become more and more popular, and generally, I try to avoid them. Gone Girl was so well-written and its twist both genuinely surprising and believable (which is harder to achieve than it may seem) that I’m usually disappointed in those that follow.

That being said, Behind Her Eyes was an intriguing read. I did get caught up in the story and it kept me wondering what exactly was going on and who to be skeptical of, but the devices it used (particularly toward the end) seemed over-the-top and unbelievable. Overall, Sarah Dickinson does a great job summing up how I feel on her blog, but beware of spoilers if you haven’t read the book and still want to.

Pinborough’s novel begins in the middle of David and Adele’s troubled marriage. After a recent move to London, David almost immediately begins an affair with Louise, who turns out to be his new receptionist. It’s not clear how Adele discovers his transgression, but she makes it a point to befriend Louise and tension begins to build. As more about Adele’s backstory is revealed, more questions arise. In the present day narrative, we’re left wondering who we can trust. I’ll stop here to avoid spoilers, but I think it achieved what it needed to for our book club in that it was mostly riveting and twisty and will certainly make for interesting discussion. I’m looking forward to hearing what everyone has to say about it.

In an attempt to create some domestic bliss (or at least throw David off her scent), Adele continues to make impressive home-cooked meals almost every evening. On one such evening, she whips up the deceptively easy Spaghetti Carbonara and serves it with a simple arugula salad. I grabbed a recipe from one of my favorite blogs, Damn Delicious, for the pasta and found one for the salad from Everyday Maven. The whole meal took about twenty minutes and only requires a minimum number of ingredients for one so impressive; it makes a perfect weeknight meal.

First, I set a large pot of water to bowl and then prepped the salad. I chopped a half cup of cherry tomatoes in half and tossed them in a large bowl with arugula and the lemon zest. I love Trader Joe’s arugula because it’s the perfect amount for a dinner salad and it’s already pre-washed. In a separate small bowl, I combined the ingredients for the dressing – olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and salt and pepper. With the salad mostly set, I turned to the pasta.

Once the water was boiling, I salted it and added the spaghetti to the pot. In a small bowl, I whisked together the eggs and Parmesan and set it aside. I added my diced pancetta (or bacon, if that’s what you’re using) to a heated skillet and allowed it to crisp up for several minutes, before adding my minced garlic.

You’re going to want to make sure your pasta is cooked and drained before you add the garlic. Here is where you need to begin working quickly. Even though this recipe is easy, the eggs leave some room for error. You don’t want them to scramble; they should become a part of the creamy sauce, indistinguishable from the pasta itself. 

To my pancetta and garlic, I added my pasta and the egg-Parmesan mixture, using a pair of tongs to toss and combine everything. I seasoned with salt and pepper, before adding a bit of pasta water, tossing and checking the consistency.

With that all set, I re-whisked my dressing, poured it on the arugula and tossed my salad. Best dishes are both served immediately.

Spaghetti Carbonara

  • Servings: 4
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Ingredients

  • 8 ounces spaghetti
  • 2 large eggs
  • ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan
  • 4 slices bacon, diced [or diced pancetta, about 4 ounces]
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves (optional)

Directions

  1. In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook pasta according to package instructions; reserve 1/2 cup water and drain well.
  2. In a small bowl, whisk together eggs and Parmesan; set aside.
  3. Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Add bacon and cook until brown and crispy, about 6-8 minutes; reserve excess fat.
  4. Stir in garlic until fragrant, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to low.
  5. Working quickly, stir in pasta and egg mixture, and gently toss to combine; season with salt and pepper, to taste. Add reserved pasta water, one tablespoon at a time, until desired consistency is reached.
  6. Serve immediately, garnished with parsley, if desired.


From: Damn Delicious

Arugula Salad with Lemon Balsamic Dressing

  • Servings: 4
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Ingredients

  • ½ pound arugula
  • ½ cup grape or cherry tomatoes, washed and halved
  • zest of a whole medium lemon
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 5 to 6 turns freshly ground black pepper

Directions

  1. In a large salad or mixing bowl, combine arugula, halved grape tomatoes and the zest of an entire medium lemon.
  2. In a separate bowl, whisk olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper together until well mixed.
  3. When ready to serve, pour dressing over salad, toss until well coated. Serve and Enjoy!


book review, recipe

The Art of Racing in the Rain + Chicken Dog Treats

Garth Stein’s novel The Art of Racing in the Rain had a lot of promise when it was chosen as our most recent book club selection – it had a cute dog on the cover, it has over four stars on Goodreads, and oh yeah, it’s an international bestseller. Honestly, my biggest concern when I started it was that the dog would die, and after the Lily and the Octopus crying-on-a-plane debacle, I wasn’t sure I could handle that.

From the start, however, it’s quite clear that Enzo the dog (and narrator) may die. As a very old dog with what seems to be hip dysplasia, he is suffering quite a lot in the opening chapter. However, as a highly enlightened animal, Enzo doesn’t seem bothered and spends much of the book talking about his ultimate goal of becoming a human through reincarnation upon his death. And, for much of the rest of the novel, he spends his time making comparisons between life and racing that were a bit of a stretch at best and boring distractions from the rest of the story at worst.

For me, honestly, the downfall of this novel was not that the dog was narrating nor that the majority of the characters were unlikeable – including Enzo, who I thought could not have been more pompous and un-doglike if he was a cat – but that it tried way too hard and missed the mark. And while all of us in book club didn’t feel exactly the same way, three of us (including the lovely lady who chose it) absolutely hated it.

It’s an interesting concept, and who doesn’t love a good dog story? But it could have been so much more. It could have felt like a dog and not a philosophy professor was leading us on this journey. It could have been packed with just slightly less drama. I guess I didn’t think the title would be so literal, but I didn’t care for the racing comparisons. Overall, though, it just didn’t feel genuine.

On the plus side, lots of dogs got to enjoy treats because of this novel, and so that brings me lots of happiness. In the novel, Enzo’s owner Denny always gives him some chicken “bedtime treats” at the end of every day, and so I set out to find a chicken treat I could make myself. I found one from Use Real Butter that is extremely homemade, fresh and delicious. I chose to make it more semi-homemade, using both canned chicken and canned sweet potato, which required less prep time.

First, I drained the chicken and popped it into my food processor, pulsing it a few times to break it down into smaller pieces.

Then, I added everything to the bowl of my standing mixer – chicken, sweet potato puree, shredded cheddar cheese, an egg and half of the flour. I used the paddle attachment to combine the ingredients partially before adding the rest of the flour. This is where you’ll need to eyeball it and likely add more flour to get a less sticky consistency. Once the dough comes together, put it on a lightly floured work surface and roll it out to a thickness of about ¼”.

I found this adorable paw-shaped cookie cutter on Amazon, but you can really use any shape you have on-hand.

Once I had 2 cookie sheets full of treats, I put them in the oven to bake. (I ended up covering 3 cookies sheets in total and made somewhere between 175 and 200 treats.) I opted for treats on the chewy side, but I have included the directions from the original recipe below so you can make them crispier if you’d like to.

Once they were cool, I gave some to Beta to taste test. She absolutely approved! In fact, she liked the smell of them so much that she had a hard time holding back while I tried to snap some pictures.

Almost 200 treats is a lot! So I also wrapped them up in little gift bags to give to my coworkers who have dogs and asked them all to take photos of their dogs enjoying them too. Quite a good looking bunch! It seemed the treats got puppy approval all around.

Chicken

  • Servings: 150+
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Ingredients

  • 12.5 oz, or one large can, of canned chicken (Premium Chunk White Chicken Meat), pulsed in a food processor
  • 10 oz (approx.) canned sweet potato purée
  • 1 cup cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour (and more as needed, plus extra for rolling out)
  • 1 large egg

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Mix all of the ingredients together until the dough is well blended. The dough should come together without being too sticky. Add more flour as needed (by the ¼ cup) until you achieve a consistency that holds together but isn’t wet. (Additionally, more egg or sweet potato could be added if, for some reason, the dough is too dry.)
  2. Roll the dough out on a lightly floured work surface to 1/4-inch thickness. Cut out shapes and arrange on a foil- or parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake time will depend on size of the treats. For 1-inch diameter treats, start testing doneness after 15 minutes by lightly poking the center of a treat with your finger. For larger treats, allow for more baking time (but keep an eye on it the first time around). Treats should be slightly soft in the middle at which point you can remove them for soft treats. For crunchy treats, shut off the heat and leave the oven door closed. Let the treats dry out in the residual heat, but check to see that they aren’t burning at the edges.
  3. Store soft treats in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to a week. Store hard treats in an air-tight container for up to a week. If storing for longer, refrigerate or freeze them. Makes 150+ 1-inch treats.

Adapted from: Use Real Butter

Notes: I didn’t do an exact count, but my recipe made well more than I expected. Definitely in the 150-200 range, but probably closer to 200. This will depend most of all on the size of the cookie cutter, but also on how thickly you roll the dough. The large quantity makes this a great recipe to save money and stock up on homemade treats for your own dog, or to give as gifts to other dog owners!


This post contains affiliate links. Full disclosure here.

book review, recipe

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine + Pasta al Pesto

I first heard about Gail Honeyman’s novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine when someone suggested it for one of my book clubs. I jotted it down, added it to the poll for September, hopped on the library wait list (just in case), and didn’t think much more about it. I’m actually glad I came into it with no real expectations because the whole experience turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

Eleanor Oliphant has worked in finance in the same small company her entire career. She is socially awkward and a bit of a curmudgeon, who is very reliant on her routine. A routine which includes eating pasta with pesto for dinner every night and drinking vodka until she passes out most weekends. Despite all of her peculiarities, Eleanor on the page is quite charming. My heart warmed to her, and I found myself laughing out loud on several occasions.

I’m excited to see what the rest of the book club thinks of Eleanor. I hope they enjoy her as much as I did! And while we chose to visit an Irish pub for our book discussion (as close to a British pub as we could find), I opted to make Eleanor’s favorite staple for today’s post – pasta with pesto.

I very much doubt she makes her own, but I couldn’t exactly plop some store bought pesto onto some pasta and call it a day. (However, if I had to make a recommendation for store bought pesto, I quite enjoy Trader Joe’s Pesto alla Genovese.) The pesto recipe I chose was so easy and delicious though, that I’ve been thinking of taking up my herb-growing again, just so I could have an abundance of basil and make this more often.

Best of all, it uses walnuts which are much more affordable than pine nuts – I think Eleanor would approve of that choice. To start, I toasted the garlic until it had some little brown spots.

Then, I moved them out of the pan to cool and toasted the walnuts as well. While those cooled, I assembled the rest of my ingredients – basil, parsley, grated parmesan, olive oil and salt and pepper.

I added everything to my food processor and blended everything until smooth.

I ended up having to add just a touch more olive oil, but use your best judgment as it comes together. Taste and season with additional salt and pepper if necessary.

I tossed some ribbed penne pasta (great for the pesto to cling to) with my freshly made sauce, dished it up and topped with some extra parmesan cheese for good measure.

Use your pasta of choice, and if you have any leftover pesto, it will keep in the fridge for a short while, or it can be frozen. Enjoy!

Basil Walnut Pesto

  • Servings: 8
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Ingredients

  • 6 cloves garlic unpeeled
  • ½ cup walnuts
  • 4 cup packed fresh basil leaves
  • 2 cup packed fresh parsley
  • ½ cup Parmesan cheese
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Directions

  1. Toast the garlic cloves in their skin in a small skillet over medium heat, shaking often, until brown spots form, about 5 minutes. Remove to a small bowl to cool before peeling.
  2. Meanwhile, return the skillet to medium heat and add walnuts. Toast until fragrant, 5 to 10 minutes, shaking frequently to prevent scorching. Remove from heat.
  3. Combine peeled garlic, walnuts, basil, parsley, parmesan cheese, and olive oil in a blender or food processor; blend until smooth.
  4. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  5. Serve as a topping on pasta (3/4 c. pesto per pound of pasta), as a spread on sandwiches, or as a garnish to soups.


This post contains affiliate links. Full disclosure here.