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book review, recipe

Bird Box + Tuna and White Bean Pasta Salad

I don’t always read “happy” books, but I typically do avoid scary ones. My imagination is too active for me to be able to read them without freaking myself out. For Josh Malerman’s novel Bird Box, however, I made an exception. Why? Because a few good friends insisted it wasn’t scary-scary, but also it was so good I had to. When one of these friends let me borrow her copy, I wasted no time jumping in. It was now or never!

Bird Box Book Cover

Truthfully, Bird Box isn’t a horror novel. If anything, it’s more like a thriller/suspense dystopia. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t creepy, uncomfortable moments. In a world where something unknown is out there causing people to turn violent, creepy moments are bound to happen.

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book review, recipe

Crazy Rich Asians + Chicken Satay

Kevin Kwan’s novel Crazy Rich Asians has been buzzed about since its debut five years ago, and that buzz has only continued to grow now that it’s becoming a movie (out on August 15 this year). The title is pretty self-explanatory – the novel is about the wealthiest of the wealthy families in Singapore, including the Youngs. But, when Rachel Chu’s boyfriend, Nick Young, invites her to attend his best friend’s wedding back at home, she has no idea what’s in store.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwon (Book Cover)

Together in New York, they work regular jobs, go out to eat occasionally and live in an average apartment. Her first hint that Nick’s life may be different than he let on is on their extravagant first class journey to Asia. Rachel realizes it’s going to be even harder to impress his parents than she expected, once she learns he is a member of one of the wealthiest families in the country (and likely, the continent).

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book review, recipe

The Optimistic Decade + Honey-Lemon Popsicles

I was drawn to my latest read both by the striking cover art and the following description:

You say you want a revolution? This energetic and entertaining novel about a utopian summer camp and its charismatic leader asks smart questions about good intentions gone terribly wrong.

Framed by the oil shale bust and the real estate boom, by protests against Reagan and against the Gulf War, The Optimistic Decade takes us into the lives of five unforgettable characters, and is a sweeping novel about idealism, love, class, and a piece of land that changes everyone who lives on it…

Heather Abel’s novel is a brilliant exploration of the bloom and fade of idealism and how it forever changes one’s life. Or so we think.

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book review, recipe

The Female Persuasion + Faith Frank’s Feminist Steak

I don’t remember where I first heard about Meg Wolitzer’s new novel The Female Persuasion, but I remember getting immediately excited and adding to my TBR on Goodreads. Even though I didn’t really like The Interestings, the description of this one seemed right up my alley. If I didn’t like it, I decided, Meg Wolitzer probably wasn’t for me. As luck would have it, I didn’t have to wait long to read it — I was the first one to receive it when it arrived at the library on New Book Tuesday, April 3. I rushed to pick it up.

In it, Wolitzer explores feminism from the inside-out. Greer is a shy college freshman when she attends an event where Faith Frank is speaking. A prominent figure in the women’s movement for decades, Faith captivates the room. Greer, too, is inspired and decides to approach Faith, making to a connection that will shape her ideas, her career and her future.

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book review, recipe

Annihilation + Mussels with White Wine and Pesto

I first heard of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation when it was featured in a list of books that would be becoming movies in 2018. The title promised a scary intensity, something I normally steer clear of, but the description piqued my interest. While it was sitting in my stack of library books, I saw the movie preview (which recently came out and stars Natalie Portman) for the first time and it freaked me out so much, I considered returning it to the library without even reading it. But, I put my big girl pants on and ventured into Area X after all.

Annihilation takes readers along on the twelfth expedition into Area X, an unruly and mysterious landscape cut off from the rest of the world. The female-only expedition includes an anthropologist, a surveyor, their leader the psychologist, and our narrator the biologist. The fifth member, a linguist, didn’t even make it through the entry point. VanderMeer creates a world that is both eerie and unknown. It is slightly creepy – in the way that the popular TV show LOST was creepy – but I was never terrified. In fact, I couldn’t put the book down; I finished it in a day.

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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

Educated + Peach Cobbler

As I mentioned in this month’s edition of Show Us Your Books, I read Tara Westover’s memoir Educated in a whirlwind over the weekend. It was one of my most anticipated books of the year, so even though I was excited to get a free copy from NetGalley (and read it before it even came out!), a little bit of me was also nervous to read it and be disappointed. Luckily, it lived up to expectations; I couldn’t put it down.

Tara grew up in Idaho, where her parents were determined to be self-sufficient, teaching their children to be prepared for the end of days that were always just around the corner. They canned peaches and stocked up on other necessities, saved for solar panels and built a bomb shelter. The Westovers didn’t believe in government-sponsored education and insisted on homeschooling all of their children, though the education they received was more of the hard knocks variety than something akin to reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. Perhaps the most terrifying thing about Tara’s parents was their refusal to submit to the “Medical Establishment.” Every wound or injury – no matter the severity – was treated at home.

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book review, recipe

Little Fires Everywhere + Blackened Chicken

Celeste Ng’s latest novel Little Fires Everywhere has been one of the hottest reads of the year (pun intended). As a big fan of her previous novel, Everything I Never Told You, I was excited to see what all the fuss was about when my hold recently came through at the library. Ng immerses us in the planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, a town she herself grew up in, and shines some light on the not-so-perfect lives of those that live there.

The story revolves primarily around the Richardsons, an exemplary Shaker Heights family, and Mia and Pearl Warren, a single mother and daughter who become their tenants. All four Richardson children – two girls and two boys, as varied as you could possibly imagine – are drawn to Pearl and her mother, who is an artist and a bit of a mystery. When the Richardsons’ family friend attempts to adopt a Chinese-American baby, who was found abandoned, it divides the town and pits Mia against Elena, the Richardson matriarch, threatening to topple the precarious status quo.

Little Fires Everywhere is full of the quiet drama of everyday life but also tackles something bigger. As Elena digs deep into Mia’s past and the Richardson children exist with little oversight, we’re along for the ride, discovering secrets and taking sides along with the rest of them.

Today’s recipe is inspired not only by the novel’s title but this quote, which stood out to me as I read: “Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over. After the burning, the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too. They start over. They find a way.” I decided to make a blackened chicken, traditionally covered heavily in spices and cooked on high heat on the stove top until the seasoning becomes dark.

I debated between two recipes, one from Pop Culture, a more classically prepared blackened chicken, and one from Gal on a Mission, which is baked. Though a baked version doesn’t get quite as “black” as one cooked on the stovetop, I ultimately went with that option. It’s just as flavorful and the fact that it’s hands-off made it appealing when I was cooking it after work the other day. Additionally, I was easily able to roast some small potatoes and broccoli alongside it, completing the meal in 30 minutes, with minimal prep.

To start, I preheated the oven to 450 degrees F, and combined all of my spices in a small bowl. This recipe uses a lot of spices – salt, cayenne pepper, crushed red pepper, garlic powder, paprika, black pepper, onion powder, dried oregano and dried thyme – but thankfully, none of them are obscure; I already had them all in my cupboard.

I covered each chicken breast with generously with the spices, making sure each was thickly coated. If you’re using 3 large breasts or 6 small breasts, you shouldn’t have any of the spice mixture left. (I only used 2 breasts but still used most of it.)

Then, I put the chicken in an 8×8 glass baking dish and popped them in the oven for 23 minutes. For the last 5 minutes of the bake time, cover the dish with foil and allow to continue baking while covered. My chicken breasts were definitely larger than average and needed to bake for an additional 10 minutes before they reached 165 degrees F.  

While these pictures probably aren’t my best, the chicken was delicious, very flavorful and moist (thanks to the foil cover). To top it off, it’s easy and hands-off, almost impossible to mess up.

Baked Cajun Chicken Breasts

  • Servings: 6
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Ingredients

  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon crushed red peppers
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon onion powder
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ teaspoon dried thyme
  • 3 large chicken breasts or 6 small chicken breasts

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Grease an 8×8 baking sheet or dish. Set aside.
  2. Mix together the salt, cayenne pepper, crushed red peppers, garlic powder, paprika, pepper, onion powder, dried oregano, and dried thyme in a small bowl.
  3. Rub the spice mix onto the chicken breasts.
  4. Bake for 18 minutes. Remove the chicken breasts from the oven and cover with aluminum foil and bake for another 5 minutes.
  5. Once cooked through, allow the chicken to rest for 3-5 minutes before slicing to serve.

From: Gal on a Mission

Notes: Check the temperature of your chicken to ensure it’s cooked all the way through, particularly if you’re using large breasts. Mine had to bake for an additional 10 minutes to reach 165 degrees F.


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book review, recipe

Turtles All the Way Down + Spiral Mac ‘n’ Cheese

John Green has written many young adult novels, including one of my favorites, The Fault in Our Stars. He has a unique way of tackling both the everyday and the unexpected parts of the lives of teenagers. His latest novel, Turtles All the Way Down, is no exception. Like other teenagers, Aza tries her best in school, has an understanding best friend, and doesn’t know exactly what to do when she finds herself in a relationship. Aza also lives with obsessive-compulsive disorder and an often crippling level of anxiety, much of which was drawn from Green’s own experiences.

Because of that, Turtles tells an excellent, unique story. Admittedly, some of the scenes where Aza is having obsessive thoughts were hard to read. It almost felt like I was in her head, and in those moments, I read as if hiding behind split fingers – not wanting to go on but wanting to know what happened all the same. I admire Green’s willingness to not only discuss his own mental health issues but to write about them too, in a way that’s real.

Stories like these help to make mental health something that’s okay to talk about. The existence of a likeable character that readers can connect to and empathize with can help teenagers (and adults) realize that mental illness is not something to be embarrassed or ashamed of. In Green’s own words, “it’s important for people to hear from [those] who have good fulfilling lives and manage chronic mental illness as part of those good fulfilling lives.” And because of that, it is absolutely a book worth picking up – even if you aren’t familiar with John Green, even if you don’t usually read YA.

Honestly, the first thing I thought of when I looked at this book’s cover was spiral macaroni and cheese. I think they eat it once over the course of the story, but in the end, I couldn’t get it out of my head and no other foods really stood out to me. So, no surprise, that’s what I decided to make. I found an easy recipe from Famished Fish and set to work for a quick, easy dinner one night.

To start, I brought my water to a boil and cooked my noodles according to the package instructions. The original recipe called for rotini, but I also think cavatappi would work great here.

While the noodles cooked, I made the sauce. I melted butter in a pan and then added flour to create a roux. To that, I added the dried mustard and paprika, slowly stirring in 1 cup of milk, so that it could fully incorporate with the roux and remain thick.

Then, I added in the remaining 2 cups of milk slowly, along with the salt and a dash of Worcestershire sauce. I continued cooking the sauce, stirring occasionally for about 5 minutes more or so, until it thickened. I stirred in three-quarters of the cheese so it melted and became incorporated.

I drained the finished noodles and poured the cheese sauce on top, stirring until the noodles were fully covered. To serve, I spooned the mac ‘n’ cheese into bowls and topped each with a sprinkling of shredded cheese.

It was delicious! And so easy that I’ll definitely be adding it to my repertoire.

Creamy Spiral Mac 'n' Cheese

  • Servings: 4-6
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Ingredients

  • 16 oz uncooked spiral noodles (rotini or cavatappi)
  • ¼ cup butter
  • ¼ cup flour
  • ½ tsp mustard
  • ½ tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp salt
  • dash of Worcestershire sauce
  • 3 cups milk, divided
  • 2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, divided

Directions

  1. Add uncooked pasta to a large pot of boiling water. Cook 9-11 minutes, according to package directions.
  2. Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan set over medium heat, melt the butter. When butter has melted, stir in flour to create a roux.
  3. Slowly stir in 1 cup of milk along with the mustard and paprika. Stir and cook until the mixture thickens. Add the remaining 2 cups of milk and the salt and Worcestershire sauce. Cook and stir 5 minutes until has thickened.
  4. Stir in 1½ cups of the sharp cheddar cheese. Stir the sauce until the cheese has melted.
  5. Drain the pasta and return to large pot. Carefully pour the cheese sauce over the cooked pasta. Stir gently to combine the cheese sauce and pasta.
  6. Ladle the macaroni and cheese spirals into a large serving bowl and sprinkle with the remaining ½ cup of sharp cheddar cheese.
  7. Serve immediately.

Adapted from: Famished Fish

This post contains affiliate links. Full disclosure here.

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!