Thursday, August 27, 2015

Quick-Pickled Okra Grilled Cheese Sandwich: Comfort Food for Food 'N Flix: August: Osage County

The Westons of Osage County, Oklahoma get my vote for the family I'd least like to have dinner with, or actually to spend any time with at all. Luckily, for our August Food 'N Flix pick, August: Osage County, we only had to watch this unpleasant and quite dysfunctional clan come together and not be a part of their intense family drama. I will say that as much as I love Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, the trailers for this movie when it came out made me avoid it because of how abrasive and annoying their characters seemed. So I was glad that our host Debra of Eliot's Eats picked it for this month's Food 'N Flix film because it pushed me to watch it. And, the timing was perfect because it was running on cable all month. Although I watched it at the beginning of the month, life has been insane lately and I am sliding in right under the wire as usual with my entry.

If you aren't familiar with the film, you can read Debra's announcement post here for details. My one sentence summary is that a family gathers when their missing patriarch turns up dead, they fight a lot, and plenty of emotions and secrets come out. Based on a stage play by Oklahoma playwright Tracy Letts, it's a somewhat dark film with some very tough and dramatic subject matter, a few (darkly) humorous moments, and plenty of cringe worthy scenes--especially when Meryl Streep (as matriarch and mother from hell, Violet Weston) starts spewing her opinions and her rage at her family. The acting is excellent and the cast top-notch (Streep, Roberts, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliet Lewis, Chris Cooper, Abigial Breslin, and Ewan McGregor). I am glad I saw it but it won't be a 'watch again' movie for me.

Although not a foodie film, there is a good amount of of food and drink shown or mentioned--casseroles at the funeral dinner, biscuits and gravy, catfish and cornbread, apple pie, and plenty of alcohol--just to name a few. For my film-inspired dish, I decided to take my inspiration from the food of Oklahoma and I also wanted to make something to feed the youngest Weston, Jean (played by Abigail Breslin). Jean doesn't eat meat and says it's because when you eat it--you are "ingesting an animal's fear"--something that gets her hassled at the funeral dinner table. 

When I looked up the foods of Oklahoma, I found that in 1988, Oklahoma designated an official state meal that consisted of "fried okra, squash, cornbread, barbecue pork, biscuits, sausage and gravy, grits, corn, strawberries, chicken fried steak, pecan pie, and black-eyed peas." I knew I wanted to use okra but I wanted to do a quick pickle rather than fry it. Then I thought that if I were Jean and I had to eat a meal with that family, I would want some serious comfort food. Few things say comfort better than a grilled cheese and I decided it would be a fun touch to slide pickled okra in the middle of two cheeses and sandwich it all between two slices of heavily-buttered sourdough bread.

Quick-Pickled Okra
By Deb, Kahakai Kitchen
(Makes about 1 Quart)

enough okra to fill a quart-sized jar (about a 12 or so)
4 Tbsp kosher salt
1 cup rice wine vinegar
1 cup water 1 Tbsp sugar
two garlic cloves
3-4 slices thinly-sliced lemon
1 red jalapeno peeper, seeded and sliced
1 Tbsp pickling spices
1 pinch red pepper flakes
Wash the okra and slice in half lengthwise. Place okra in a colander, rinse, drain, and toss with 3 tablespoons of the salt. Let the salted okra drain in sink for 30 minutes. 

Rinse the okra in cold water to remove the salt and any slime. Put the remaining tablespoon of salt, water, vinegar, sugar, pickling spice, and red pepper flakes into a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat and simmer for a few minutes, stirring until the sugar is dissolved.  

Place the garlic, lemon, and jalapeno slices, in the bottom of a sterilized quart jar. Place the okra in the jar, standing them up vertically, alternating the stems up and down. Pour the brine mixture into the jar. 

Allow the jar to cool to room temperature. Place the lid on the jar and refrigerate for at least 5-6 hours before using. Can be stored kept refrigerator for up to 1 month.

Sandwich: For my Quick-Pickled Okra Grilled Cheese, I used a combination of American cheese and smoked Gouda. I patted the pickled okra dry with paper towels and layered it in the middle of the cheese. Toasted to crispy, cheesy perfection, I served a few okra pickles alongside it. 

Notes/Results: This was one yummy sandwich with the melty cheese, the slight smokiness of the smoked Gouda, and the tart and vinegary okra pickles. A little different and a nice change from a plain grilled cheese. I will definitely make it again.  

Debra will be rounding up the entries shortly on her blog so check out the film-inspired dishes that everyone made. If you missed out this round and like food, films, and foodie films, join us for September, when Food 'N Flix founder, Heather of girlichef is hosting. We'll be celebrating 5 Years of this fun event and you can choose which of our many previously viewed films to make a dish from.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Book Tour Stops Here: A Review of "Come Away With Me" by Karma Brown, Served with Giada's Lemon Spaghetti

On today's TLC Book Tour stop, we are taking a trip to Thailand, Italy, and Hawaii with the moving novel of love and loss; Come Away With Me by Karma Brown. (Releasing today!) I am pairing my review with a big bowl of sunny Lemon Spaghetti, inspired by the book.

Publisher's Blurb:

A heartbreaking and emotional story of love and loss, COME AWAY WITH ME is one woman’s discovery that life is still worth living, even if it’s not the life you planned.

One minute, Tegan Lawson has everything she could hope for: an adoring husband, Gabe, and a baby on the way. The next, a patch of black ice causes a devastating accident that will change her life in ways she never could have imagined.

Tegan is consumed by grief—not to mention anger toward Gabe, who was driving on the night of the crash. But just when she thinks she’s hit rock bottom, Gabe reminds her of their Jar of Spontaneity, a collection of their dream destinations and experiences, and so begins an adventure of a lifetime.
From the bustling markets of Thailand to the flavors of Italy to the ocean waves in Hawaii, Tegan and Gabe embark on a journey to escape the tragedy and search for forgiveness. But they soon learn that grief follows you no matter how far away you run, and that acceptance comes when you least expect it. Heartbreaking, hopeful and utterly transporting, COME AWAY WITH ME is an unforgettable debut and a luminous celebration of the strength of the human spirit.

Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Mira (August 25, 2015)

My Review:
I have to start by saying that I ugly-cried throughout Come Away With Me. A lot. It's hard not to get attached to Tegan and her husband Gabe, a young couple with so much possibility, only to have it torn away in a few moments in a tragic accident. Tegan's grief is palpable from every page, as is her anger at Gabe, who she blames for driving too fast and not paying the attention he should have to driving and the accident that takes the life of their unborn child. How does someone come back from that kind of devastation? Gabe thinks she should pull three slips from the Jar of Spontaneity they started a few months before their wedding, hoping the results will push her to start healing and forgiving. The three slips turn into an incredible trip from Chicago to Thailand, Italy's Amalfi Coast, and finally to Hawaii. Tegan is reluctant to go and is having a tough time balancing her love for Gabe with her anger at him. The grieving process is never a straight path and the author captures the one step forward, two steps back in an honest and accurate way. Each location and the experiences had there are vividly drawn and it adds to the beauty of the story--as do Tegan, Gabe, their friends and family, and the people encountered along the way. The story moves back and forth, before and after the accident and at different points in Tegan and Gabe's relationship and it all comes together seamlessly, serving to build an even deeper connection with the characters. I had some inkling of where the ending was heading but it added a whole other level of emotion. A touching book that shows the power of love, loss and healing. Wear your waterproof mascara and prepare to be swept away. 


Author Notes: Karma Brown is a National Magazine Award winning freelance writer and journalist, and a member of the Professional Writers Association of Canada. She lives just outside Toronto with her family and writes powerfully emotional upmarket women’s fiction, in the vein of Me Before You. COME AWAY WITH ME is her first novel. 

You can connect with Karma on her website, Twitter or Facebook.

With the wonderful locations in the book, it was easy to find food inspiration for a dish to pair with this book. Having spent some time in Thailand and loving Thai food, I thought about red curry and rice or a glass of Thai iced coffee. The poke, pineapple, banana bread, and 'Maui Wowie French Toast' mentions from Hawaii were also tempting of course. ;-) Taking a cooking class in Italy is a dream of mine and the tomato sauce, Eggplant Parmigiana, farmer's spaghetti, and lemony white fish with capers from Francesca's Cooking School had my mouth watering. The Italian cooking Gabe's mom did and his dad's Dutch Pancakes were also strong contenders. But, it was the description of Amalfi with its "...layered rows of lush, ripe lemon and olive trees as far as the eye can see" that pulled me in and started me thinking of lemon pasta.  

I keep meaning to make this simple Lemon Spaghetti recipe from Giada De Laurentiis. I think the liberal use of lemon juice and olive oil captures the spirit of Amalfi, and the fact that it is a quick dish with just five ingredients makes my lazy heart happy.

Lemon Spaghetti
Giada De Laurentiis via Food Network
(Serves 6)

1 lb spaghetti
2/3 cup olive oil
2/3 cup grated Parmesan
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (about 3 lemons)salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp lemon zest
1/3 cup chopped fresh basil leaves (I used parsley)

Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until tender but still firm to the bite, stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk the oil, Parmesan, and lemon juice in a large bowl to blend.

Drain the pasta, reserving 1 cup of the cooking liquid. Toss the pasta with the lemon sauce, and the reserved cooking liquid, adding 1/4 cup at a time as needed to moisten. Season with salt and pepper. Garnish with lemon zest and chopped basil.

Notes/Results: Just a quick and easy pantry dinner that tastes like sunshine in your pasta bowl. Lemony, but balanced with the olive oil and slightly nutty from the Parmesan.I forgot to buy basil (bummer) but I had parsley on hand and it worked just fine. This goes together in the time it takes to cook the pasta and works as a side or could be a main dish too--you could easily add chicken, shrimp, or chickpeas to it for some protein. I will make it again.

This post is linking up to Potluck Week at I Heart Cooking Clubs--our chance to make any Jacques Pépin recipe, or any recipe from a previous IHCC chef, like Giada. You can see what recipes and which chefs that everyone cooked from by checking out the picture links on the post.    

Note: A review copy of "Come Away With Me" was provided to me by the publisher and TLC Book Tours in return for a fair and honest review. I was not compensated for this review and as always my thoughts and opinions are my own.

You can see the stops for the rest of this Book Tour and what other reviewers thought about the book here.


Sunday, August 23, 2015

Jacques Pépin's Curried Coleslaw (with Panfried Opah and Sugar Snap Peas)

I used to not be a big fan of coleslaw. It often seemed 'gloppy' and tasteless to me. Lately, I have been appreciating it more and even enjoying it--especially if it has a flavor twist, like the curry powder in this version by Jacques Pépin. 

This weeks I Heart Cooking Clubs theme is Salads et Vinaigrettes. I was going to make one of Jacques's Caesar salad variations, but when I saw this Curried Coleslaw recipe in Essential Pépin, and saw the recommendation to serve it with fish, I knew I had to make it and pair it with a nice piece of local opah (moonfish). I made a few small changes to the recipe (adding more curry, mixing green and purple cabbage for color, and swapping out half of the mayo for Greek yogurt), noted in red below.

Jacques says, "A dash of curry gives this coleslaw an interesting tang. An invigorating accompaniment, it's perfect with fish. It can be made ahead; the slaw will keep, refrigerated, for a couple of days."  

Curried Coleslaw
Adapted from Essential Pépin by Jacques Pépin
(Serves 4)

1 small head cabbage or 1/2 larger head (about 1 1/4 lbs) (I used a mix of purple & green cabbage)

1/3 cup mayonnaise (I used 3 Tbsp vegan mayo + 3 Tbsp Greek yogurt)
3 Tbsp cider vinegar
1 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
2 tsp poppy seeds
1/4 tsp Tabasco sauce
1 tsp curry powder (I used 2 tsp)

1 large carrot, peeled and shredded on the large holes of a grater (about 1 cup)
Trim cabbage, removing and discarding any damaged parts. Shred or cut it into very thin strips. (You should have 5 to 6 lightly packed cups.)

Mix dressing ingredients in a bowl large enough to hold the finished coleslaw. Add the cabbage and carrot to the dressing and mix well. Serve immediately, or cover and refrigerate to serve later.

Notes/Results: Yum! This recipe may have turned me into a coleslaw lover--so fresh, tangy, and crisp with great flavor. Just one teaspoon of curry seemed light to me, so I doubled it and found it brought the flavor forward, but without overpowering the rest of the plate. Because of the flavorful coleslaw, I kept the opah simple--seasoning it with salt, pepper and just a pinch of Old Bay Seasoning, and adding some steamed sugar snap peas for a bit of green on the plate. A fast and simple meal. I will make it again.  

You can see what salads and dressings caught the other IHCC participants fancy by checking out the picture links on the post here.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Book Tour Stops Here: A Review of "The Hypnotist" by Gordon Snider, Served with a San Francisco-Style Shrimp Louie Salad

Happy Aloha Friday! Today's TLC Book Tour Stop brings a review of The Hypnotist by Gordon Snider. I'm serving up my review with a Shrimp Louie Salad, inspired by this historical suspense novel's San Francisco setting.

Publisher's Blurb:

In 1906, San Francisco has reached the peak of its golden age. Fortunes have created a society that attracts European opera singers and cordon bleu chefs. It is a world defined by elegant balls, oysters, and champagne. But there are darker sides to the city as well. The Mission district south of Market Street houses tenements where shanties huddle together and rats plague the streets. And nearby sits Chinatown, an endless warren of dark alleys that offers gambling, prostitution, and opium, all controlled by vicious gangs, called tongs.

Into these disparate worlds steps Marta Baldwin, a young woman who has shunned her own social background to help the poor. She is confronted by a hypnotist, a man who hypnotizes young women from the tenements and delivers them to the tongs in Chinatown to work in their brothels. Marta escapes his hypnotic trance, but when her assistant, Missy, disappears, Marta realizes she has been taken by the evil man who confronted her. She seeks the help of Byron Wagner, one of San Francisco’s most prominent citizens. Marta finds herself drawn to Byron but knows his high social standing prevents any possibility of a relationship between them. This is confirmed when Marta discovers Byron having an intimate conversation with Lillie Collins, the daughter of one of the city’s most elite families. Marta is flushed with jealousy. However, Lillie defies social customs, and her rebellious nature fits naturally with Marta’s. Despite her envy, the two women become close friends. Marta is caught up in a whirlwind of opulent balls, opium dens and brothels, and police raids in Chinatown. She cannot deny her feelings for Byron, but she must save Missy and protect her new friends from harm. For lurking in the background is the hypnotist. He has become obsessed with Marta and will use all his guile to ensnare her. When he threatens those she loves, Marta is determined to stop him, even at her own peril. Will her boldness entrap her? If so, how can she hope to escape the man’s hypnotic embrace? Then the earth trembles, and Marta’s world will never be the same.

Paperback: 324 pages  
Publisher: Helm Publishing (August 3, 2009)

My Review: The Hypnotist is an engaging blend of history and suspense with a touch of romance and the supernatural thrown in. Both the story and Marta Baldwin, its protagonist, are interesting and appealing, as are the author's vivid descriptions of 1906 San Francisco. Marta is a strong character--using the inheritance from her father to operate her non-profit agency (the Pacific Aid Society) to help the poor and the recently immigrated. Marta grows throughout the book, gaining more independence and more courage to stand up for herself and fight for what she believes in--including keeping her home and agency after her brother's mismanagement of the family shipping business pushes them towards bankruptcy. For the most part, the female characters (Marta, her rebellious friend Lillie, and assistant Missy) come across as stronger and better developed than the male characters. Although the Hypnotist was creepy, he seemed more mentally unstable than diabolical. His portions of the story are told in first person, and while that did give a picture of what he was thinking, it also made him seem somewhat pathetic at times. Byron Wagner, Marta's love interest, was the only strong male character and he and Marta were a good pairing--although the romance wasn't essential to the story or its strongest element. 

I loved the author's glimpse into San Francisco in its golden age. From his writing I felt as though I could see, hear, and even smell the city, and my pulse pounded when the great earthquake struck. The end did strike me as fairly abrupt for all of the build up. I like my ends tied up, and to know at least a little about what happens to the characters that I have grown invested in. The afterword gave an update on the earthquake and historical information about the city rather than Marta and her friends and family. I was somewhat disappointed before finding out that the author did write a sequel--so I can at least find out the details there. Overall I enjoyed the The Hypnotist and would recommend it to fans of historical fiction, mystery and suspense novels, and San Francisco history. 


Author Notes: Gordon Snider has written three non-fiction books, including his latest, I’m Travelling as Fast as I Can, which takes a humorous journey to far-away-places around the world. When he moved to California’s Central Coast in 1999, he began writing fiction. The Origamist is his fifth novel and a sequel to his third, The Hypnotist, a very popular historical thriller that is set in San Francisco in 1906. The other novels include: Sigourney’s Quest, an adventure story about a woman’s harrowing journey across Tibet; The Separatist, a mystery/suspense novel set in modern San Francisco; and Venice Lost, an adventure/fantasy about a man who becomes lost in time in Venice, Italy.

Gordon has lived in California nearly his entire life. Home has ranged from Los Angeles to San Francisco, with stops in Santa Barbara and Pismo Beach. Currently, he and his wife, Fe, enjoy walking the beaches and observing the migrating whales from their home in Pismo Beach. It is, he says, the perfect setting for creative writing. Find out more about Gordon and his books on his website.


While not full of food references The Hypnotist did contain some inspiration--particularly in Chinatown where most of the meal mentions took place. There was plenty of steaming rice, fish, vegetables, pork and sausage being cooked. There was mention of the restaurants of 1906 San Francisco--French bistros serving frog legs, and German, Turkish, Mexican, and Italian eateries. Marta goes with her friend Lillie to an Italian restaurant where seafood pasta was served. In the tenements there were potatoes and the smells of cooked cabbage and baked bread. Ultimately, for my book-inspired dish, I decided to look up food in San Francisco in the 1900s and found a reference for Crab and Shrimp Louie.

"Crab Louie is a salad made with crab meat (alternatively Shrimp Louie is made with shrimp meat), which has been served in San Francisco since the early 1900s. Conflicting stories are told about the exact origins of this dish, but it is believed to be a San Francisco original. Along with the seafood meat, hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, asparagus, cucumber, and lettuce such as Romaine or iceberg are included. The mixture is tossed with Louie dressing, which is made from mayonnaise and chili sauce, and seasoned with peppers. A modern variation on this salad uses Thousand Island dressing instead."

The "conflict" mentioned in the article comes from the origin of the "Louie" or Louis Salad as both San Francisco and Seattle lay claim to its invention. I have no particular knowledge or strong opinion on which city is correct, but for our purposes today, we are going to go with San Fran. (Sorry Seattle!) Whoever invented it deserves kudos because it is a tasty salad. (It was my mom's favorite.) The fact that it appeared on restaurant menus in the early 1900s sealed the deal, along with the nasty humidity we are having here, as a crisp cold salad sounded perfect for dinner.

You'll find several variations of crab and shrimp Louies on the web--some have avocado or olives, some use Thousand Island dressing, and there are many variations of Louis dressing as well. I put together a fairly classic salad but lightened up the mayo dressing with yogurt. I also didn't have the green pepper that several articles and the Better Homes and Garden's Cookbook listed as an ingredient for Louis dressing so I made sort of a Louis/Thousand Island dressing hybrid. Might not be tradition, but it tasted great! ;-)

San Francisco-Style Shrimp Louie (Louis)
By Deb, Kahakai Kitchen
(Serves 2)

4 heaping cups shredded romaine lettuce leaves
6 oz large cooked shrimp, or cooked bay shrimp
2 hard boiled eggs
1 small bunch of asparagus, trimmed and lightly steamed
2 Roma tomatoes, sliced
1/2 hothouse cucumber, halved and thinly sliced (de-seed if desired)
Healthier Louis Salad Dressing  (see recipe below)
lemon wedge to serve 

Divide the ingredients between two large salad plates, starting with the romaine and arranging the other ingredients on top. Top with the dressing (recipe below) or serve it alongside the salad in a small bowl. Enjoy! 

Healthier Louis Dressing:
1/4 cup light mayo (I used Just Mayo vegan mayonnaise)
1/4 cup Greek yogurt 
2 Tbsp chili sauce
2 Tbsp sweet pickle relish
2 Tbsp finely minced green onion
2 tsp fresh lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Whisk together mayo, yogurt and chili sauce until smooth and creamy. Stir in the sweet pickle relish, green onion and lemon juice. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste. 

Notes/Results: This salad meal completely hit the spot for dinner with the hot and humid weather we have been having this month. All of the ingredients were crisp, cold and fresh, and the zippy and creamy dressing was perfect for dipping bites in. ;-) I used a small plate for photo purposes but a larger plate allows for mixing up the ingredients without mess as you eat. My mom would have definitely approved this one. I will happily make it again.

Note: A review copy of "The Hypnotist" was provided to me by the publisher and TLC Book Tours in return for a fair and honest review. I was not compensated for this review and as always my thoughts and opinions are my own.

You can see the stops for the rest of this Book Tour and what other reviewers thought about the book here.


Monday, August 17, 2015

The Book Tour Stops Here: A Review of "A Remarkable Kindness" by Diana Bletter, Served with a Recipe for Cucumber and Mint Tabbouleh with Minted Labneh and Avocado

On today's TLC Book Tour stop, we are journeying to Israel for a novel about friendship, love, loss, and grace during times of war. I'm reviewing A Remarkable Kindness by Diana Bletter. With my review is a dish inspired by the book, a refreshing and flavorful grain salad--Cucumber and Mint Tabbouleh with Minted Labneh and Avocado.

Publisher's Blurb:

Through a largely hidden ceremony . . . four friends discover the true meaning of life.

It’s 2006 in a seaside village in Israel, where a war is brewing. Lauren, Emily, Aviva and Rachel, four memorable women from different backgrounds, are drawn to the village. Lauren, a maternity nurse, loves her Israeli doctor husband but struggles to make a home for herself in a foreign land thousands of miles away from her beloved Boston. Seeking a fresh start after a divorce, her vivacious friend Emily follows. Strong, sensuous Aviva, brought to Israel years earlier by intelligence work, has raised a family and now lost a son. And Rachel, a beautiful, idealistic college graduate from Wyoming, arrives with her hopeful dreams.

The women forge a friendship that sustains them as they come to terms with love and loss, and the outbreak of war. Their intimate bond is strengthened by their participation in a traditional ritual that closes the circle of life. As their lives are slowly transformed, each finds unexpected strength and resilience.

Brimming with wisdom, rich in meaningful insights, A Remarkable Kindness is a moving testament to women’s friendship, illuminating a mostly unknown ritual that underscores what it means to truly be alive.

Paperback: 416 pages
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (August 11, 2015)

My Review:

A Remarkable Kindness is a fascinating and moving book. Four American women end up living in a small town in Northern Israel, just ten miles from the Lebanese border. The story takes place from 2000 to 2006, when war is hitting very close to home for them as the Israel-Hizbullah conflict escalates and comes to a head in the summer of 2006. Although the war plays a role in the story, it is truly about the four women, adjusting to life in Israel and coming together with a few local women to join the community's burial circle. A burial circle or herva kadisha, is a group of Jewish men and women who take care of the dead, preparing their bodies according to Jewish tradition for burial. These are the last people to be with the dead before they are buried. They are volunteers and since the dead cannot thank them or give them anything in return, it is considered a hesed shel emet--an act of remarkable kindness. I find I am drawn to stories that explore different religions and cultures and being not at all familiar with Jewish burial circles, I found reading about the rituals engrossing. I will say that having selected this book to review back in March and then losing my mom in May, I was concerned that I would struggle with reading about death and the time in the burial house. I found however, that the rituals are so respectful and loving, I was moved but not upset by them. In fact, as much as death is a part of the story, it is more about life--changing, growing, loving, and learning to appreciate the life you have. 

The four women the story centers around--Aviva, Lauren, Emily, and Rachel are all from America, but they range in age, have different life experiences, and are in Israel for different reasons. Their individual stories are told in between the scenes in the burial house and it is through their interactions with the burial circle that they, and their friendships grow. The author writes each woman in a very real way--they certainly aren't perfect, but they are easy to relate to and I found myself caught up in their lives. The prologue of the book hints of a tragedy and loss to come and I found myself cringing as I moved toward the end, not wanting to read what I knew was going to happen. Still, the end brought closure and I was left with a smile and, admittedly, a few tears. A Remarkable Kindness will appeal to anyone who enjoys well-written women's fiction, Jewish culture and tradition, and stories about friendship and life. 


Author Notes: Diana Bletter is a writer whose work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Commentary. Her first book, The Invisible Thread: A Portrait of Jewish American Women, with photographs by Lori Grinker, was shortlisted for a National Jewish Book Award. In 1991, she moved from New York to a seaside village in northern Israel where she lives with her husband and children, and volunteers in a burial circle.

Find out more about Diana at her website, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.


Food Inspiration:
Although not a foodie book, there is plenty of food inspiration in A Remarkable Kindness. Most of it centers around what is grown and cooked in the town and surrounding area. There is mention of "the sweetest watermelon you have ever tasted," avocado and orange groves, chicken farms with fresh eggs, trees of pecans, carob, and loquats, gardens of herbs like basil and verbena (made into tea), mangoes, papayas and persimmons, and local honey. The market in Akko sells lettuce (with a frog in the leaves), along with cabbage, leeks, string beans, cauliflower, tomatoes, and red pepper. The local hotel serves up vats of goulash and chicken soup, and then there are the various foods and meals cooked or consumed by the different characters. 

I ended up making my dish mostly inspired by a dinner date between Emily and Boaz that was comprised of tabbouleh, arugula, tomato, and fennel salads, hummus, tahini, smoked eggplant with toasted pita, fresh grilled fish and white wine, and a dessert of Turkish coffee and Baklava.

I have been craving tabbouleh and have had a recipe for Cucumber and Mint Tabbouleh with Minted Labneh from Delicious Magazine tagged to try. Fresh, green and healthy, I loved the idea of the minted labneh--thickened yogurt cheese--and I added a fresh avocado to the mix for extra nutrients--and as a nod to the avocado groves in the book. Besides the avocado, I made a few small changes to the recipe, noted in red below.

Cucumber and Mint Tabbouleh with Minted Labneh
Adapted Very Slightly from
(Serves 6)

For the Tabbouleh:
175g bulgur wheat (I used red bulgur wheat)
1 romaine lettuce heart
2 Lebanese or ridge cucumbers, or 1 ordinary cucumber
25g fresh mint, leaves picked (about 1 scant cup)
6 spring onions, thinly sliced
4 tsp lemon juice (I used the juice of 1 lemon--about 3-4 Tbsp)
3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

For the Minted Labneh
500g tub Greek yogurt (about 1 pint)
20g fresh mint, leaves picked (about 3/4 scant cup)
1/2 garlic clove, crushed (I used 1 whole clove)
2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 tsp salt, or to taste

Start the minted labneh 24 hours in advance. Put 4 tablespoons of the yogurt into a mini food processor with the mint leaves, garlic, olive oil and salt. Whizz briefly until the mint is finely chopped. Stir into the rest of the yogurt, then spoon into a sieve lined with a square of muslin. Place the sieve over a bowl, then fold the edges of the muslin over the yogurt to make a parcel. Rest a small plate on top or cut a piece of cardboard to fit on top, then weigh it down with something quite heavy. Leave to drain for 24 hours in the fridge.

The next day, put the bulgur wheat into a large bowl and cover with plenty of boiling hot water. Soak for 10-20 minutes until just tender but still a little al dente (exactly how long will depend on the brand). Drain well, then tip onto a clean tea towel and leave for 15 minutes or so to remove as much excess water as you can.

Meanwhile, discard any tough outer leaves from the lettuce, then slice it finely. Peel the cucumber(s), cut in half lengthways and scoop out the seeds with a melon baller or teaspoon. Chop into small dice.

Reserve a few small mint leaves for a garnish. Bunch up the rest and slice them widthways as finely as you can using a very sharp knife, but don’t chop them too finely – if they’re crushed they will go black.

Tip the bulgur wheat into a mixing bowl. Stir in the lettuce, cucumber, chopped mint, spring onions, lemon juice, olive oil and some salt to taste. Spoon onto a large serving plate and break over the minted labneh. Scatter over the reserved mint leaves and serve straightaway while the lettuce is still crunchy.

Cooking Tip: Bulgur wheat comes in fine, medium and coarse grain. Although fine grain is usually used for tabbouleh in the Middle East, I like a medium grain for this salad – it’s also the type available in most supermarkets. 

Notes/Results: A really nice take on a classic, this is a refreshing tabbouleh with a strong mint presence. I like a basic tabbouleh where often tomatoes and parsley are the stars, but this version puts the mint, cucumber and romaine firmly forward and gives the minted labneh the starring role. Mmm... that wonderful labneh... it adds such a great creamy contrast to the chewy bulgur and crisp vegetables and it would be just as good slathered on a piece of pita or sourdough bread. I have a feeling I will be making more of it. The avocado isn't necessary, but it does make the salad more satisfying as an entree. I did feel the salad benefited from more lemon--the recipe called for only 4 teaspoons, but I squeezed in the juice of one Meyer lemon and thought it was just right. I made the entire recipe and have been eating it for leftovers the past couple of days. I just held out the mint, labneh and avocado until serving--everything else stands up well. I will happily make this again.  

Note: A review copy of "A Remarkable Kindness" was provided to me by the publisher and TLC Book Tours in return for a fair and honest review. I was not compensated for this review and as always my thoughts and opinions are my own.

You can see the stops for the rest of this Book Tour and what other reviewers thought about the book here.


Saturday, August 15, 2015

Chipotle Cream Shrimp Tacos (Camarones Enchipotlados)

It's August's Mystery Box Madness Challenge at I Heart Cooking Clubs this week--where we find a recipe from the current IHCC chef (Jacques Pépin) or any of the other eleven former IHCC chefs that contains at least three of the ten MBM ingredients selected for that month.

August's Mystery Box Madness Ingredients:

Any Red Fruit  
(Apples, Berries, Plums, Tomatoes...)
Tortillas (Any kind)
Skirt or Flank Steak
Heavy Cream
Goat Cheese
Pumpkin Seeds
Baby/Fingerling Potatoes 
Caramel or Cajeta

Having a crazy work week, it took me until Friday to get time to figure out what to make. I immediately turned to Rick Bayless as several of the ingredients lend themselves to Mexican cooking. I went to Chef Bayless's website where he so conveniently has an Essential Ingredients search tool on his recipe page. I clicked on Mexican Oregano and quickly zoned in on his Chipotle Cream Shrimp Tacos. Not only did I have 1/2 a bag of frozen wild shrimp in my freezer, the recipe used four of this month's MBM ingredients: Oregano, Heavy Cream, Corn Tortillas and Tomatoes (aka "any Red Fruit")

Chipotle Cream Shrimp Tacos (Camarones Enchipotlados)
Adapted from Mexico-One Plate at a Time-Season 8--via
(Makes 12 Tacos--enough to serve 4)

3 cloves garlic, unpeeled
1/2 of a 14.5-oz can tomatoes in juice (preferably fire-roasted), lightly drained
2 to 3 chipotle chiles en adobo, removed from their canning liquid, seeded if you wish and roughly chopped (I used 2 small chiles with seeds)
1 Tbsp olive oil
2/3 cup Mexican crema, creme fraiche or heavy (whipping) cream
3/4 tsp (or more) fresh black pepper
1/2 tsp Mexican oregano
1 1/4 lb medium-to-large shrimp, peeled and deveined, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
12 warm corn tortillas

(I added 2 tsp lime juice)

(I served the shrimp mixture with shredded romaine lettuce, sliced avocado, cilantro leaves and lime wedges)

Roast the unpeeled garlic in an ungreased small skillet over medium heat, turning from time to time, until completely soft and blackened in places, about 15 minutes; cool and peel. 

In a blender or food processor, combine the garlic, tomatoes and chipotle chiles; blend to a smooth puree. In a medium (10-inch) skillet, heat the oil over medium-high. Add the puree and stir until reduced to the consistency of tomato paste, 5 minutes or so. Stir in the cream, pepper and oregano, reduce the heat to medium and let simmer for several minutes for the flavors to come together. 

Taste and season with salt, usually 1/2 teaspoon. Add the shrimp and stir until they are just cooked through (just losing their translucency at the center), about 3 minutes. 

Serve immediately with warm tortillas.

Notes/Results: What a great recipe this turned out to be! Simple, creamy, and full of amazing flavor. I used two chipotle chiles en adobo because I like spice but not too much, and it was perfect for me--definite heat in every bite, without being overpowering. The sauce has a rich smoky, spice to it and I felt it needed a touch more acidity, so I squeezed in some fresh lime juice--which really brightened it up. I also served my tacos with lime wedges, as well as sliced avocado, shredded fresh romaine and cilantro. I think it not only looks prettier, it adds a nice contrast to the rich and creamy sauce. This is a pretty quick and easy recipe to make and I could see it being equally delicious over rice or even pasta, A lucky find thanks to the MBM Challenge--I will definitely make it again. ;-) 

And, if you did want to work a fifth MBM ingredient into the recipe, topping the shrimp tacos with crumbled goat cheese is pretty tasty too--as I discovered with the leftovers. ;-) 

You can see what mystery ingredients, recipes and chefs other participants chose for August's Mystery Box Madness Challenge by checking out the picture links on the post at the IHCC website.


Monday, August 10, 2015

The Book Tour Stops Here: A Review of "The Invisibles" by Cecilia Galante, Served with Dark Chocolate Pretzel Bark

Today's TLC Book Tour stop features a review of The Invisibles: A Novel by Cecilia Galante, a book about friendship and secrets. Served up with my review is a recipe for Dark Chocolate Pretzel Bark inspired by the book.

Publisher's Blurb:

“We’ll choose to remain invisible. To everyone except each other . . . ”

Brought together by chance as teenagers at Turning Winds, a home for girls, Nora, Ozzie, Monica, and Grace quickly bond over their troubled pasts and form their own family, which they dub The Invisibles. With a fierce loyalty to each other, the girls feel that they can overcome any obstacle thrown their way. Though the walls they’ve built around themselves to keep out the rest of the world are thick, they discover one night, when tragedy strikes, that there are cracks in their tight-knit circle.

While Ozzie, Monica, and Grace leave after graduation to forge a fresh start, Nora decides to stay behind in Willow Grove. Now, fifteen years later, she’s content living a quiet, single life working in the local library and collecting “first lines”—her favorite opening lines from novels. But when Ozzie calls out of the blue to let her know Grace has attempted suicide and is desperate for them to reconvene, Nora is torn between elation at seeing the women who were once her most cherished, trusted friends and anxiety over the unresolved conflicts that will most certainly surface.

As the women gather and reminisce, the truth about their lives comes to light. And when The Invisibles decide to take the road trip they always dreamed of, they will be forced to reveal their deepest secrets and confront the night that changed them forever.

Paperback: 400 pages  
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (August 4, 2015)

My Review:

Nora has not had an easy life starting with a terrible childhood that left her as a teen at Turning Winds, a girls home. There, she becomes one of a group of four teens who name themselves The Invisibles--choosing to be invisible to everyone but each other. With Ozzie, Monica, and Grace, The Invisibles become their own family, holding secret monthly meetings where they share their talents and wants with each other and make wishes for the future under the power of the full moon. After graduation, they go their separate ways after "that night" when something awful happened and they cut ties with each other. Nora is the only one who stays in Willow Grove, working at the library, living with her dog Alice Walker, and putting up barriers with most of the world. She is surprised on her birthday with a call from Ozzie, almost fifteen years later, asking her to gather with Ozzie and Monica in Chicago to support Grace, who tried to kill herself after the birth of her child. Nora is compelled to go but is afraid of what will happen when she sees these women with whom she was once so close, but now is so distant from.

The Invisibles is a beautifully written novel about the power of friendship and how it can, in turns, both wound and heal us. The story, intertwining present day with flashbacks to the past, is told primarily from Nora's point of view, although we get to learn each character's story as they make their road trip and begin to share the secrets that they have held tightly for so many years. Their pasts--particularly their dismal family lives and lack of a present mother--have had a definite effect on their futures which becomes apparent as their stories unfold. A moment in the story that struck me as especially poignant is when they were discussing the simple things that they had to learn on their own as adults because they didn't have a mother or someone to show them like sending thank you notes, going to the dentist, using the right silverware, eating three times a day, changing bedsheets regularly, or even handling your period for the first time. They are things I never really thought about how I first learned and how you would go about learning them without a good role model of some sort to guide you through. The book covers some tough subjects like physical and mental abuse, sexual abuse, mental illness, and abortion, but it is handled sensitively and the story maintains momentum and doesn't become bogged down with tragedy. The characters come across as real and their relationships with each other, as both teens and adults, feel authentic. I loved all of their different quirks--especially Nora's collection of her favorite first lines of books. 

What actually happened that horrible night that pulled them apart is slowly revealed as the group reconnects and begins to rebuild their relationships. I am not sure how much of that 'big reveal' was supposed to be a twist or surprise. I guessed pretty accurately what happened fairly early on in the story; however it did not spoil my enjoyment of the book at all as I wanted confirmation that I was right. With an interesting story and characters that are easy to care about, The Invisibles is a good mix of entertaining and touching; it made me smile, it made me tear up, and it kept me turning the pages.


Author Notes: Cecilia Galante is the author of three young adult novels, three middle-grade books, and a children’s chapter-book series. She is the recipient of many awards, including a NAIBA Book of the Year and an Oprah’s Teen Read Selection for her first novel, The Patron Saint of Butterflies. Her books have been translated into Japanese, Turkish, and Polish.
Find out more about Cecilia at her website, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.


There is an interesting mix of food in The Invisibles--Birthday cake and ice cream, sprinkled with Nora's favorite candy snack of Swedish fish, and steaks for Nora and her dog, Alice Walker. There are the strange meals Ossie cooked when it was her chore rotation at Turning Winds; scrambled eggs with cut up Slim Jims--"it's the same thing as sausage and eggs!"--and peanut butter toast with sliced tomato and bacon, and even  "Popped Cereal"--popcorn and milk. There was food The Invisibles shared as teens--iced coffee and Reese's peanut butter cup cookies from The Beanery, tuna fish sandwiches on white bread and potato chips, and chocolate chip brownies after dinner. Grace's husband Henry cooks them a lunch of steaming bowls of carrot-tomato soup, small plates of arugula, roasted chicken, and goat cheese, with miniature eclairs for dessert, as well as a breakfast of perfectly poached eggs atop English muffins topped with lemony hollandaise sauce. There was the fancy (and floral) dinner at Tru that Monica's boyfriend Liam arranged for the four including multiple hors d'oeuvres, Nora's fish dish with smooth and glossy noodles and a bright red poppy overtaking the plate, Ozzie's venison braised in wine and bedecked with green leaves and purple and yellow pansies, Grace's chicken dish, "freeze-dried and flashed-fried ... settled atop a glistening puddle of cherry compote ... with small green gooseberries and an enormous pink orchid." And, there was plenty of road food--Burger King, Nutter Butters, strawberry yogurt and string cheese. So many different options to choose from to make a companion dish for my review.

Ultimately, I took my inspiration from the first official meeting of The Invisibles. Each of the four members was supposed to bring something of their own, that shows off a talent that is theirs "and nobody else's." For Ossie it was three jokes, for Grace it was her drawings, Nora brought a favorite first book line from her collection, and Monica brought her cooking. On the night of the first meeting, Monica brought chocolate-dipped pretzels, dusted with cocoa and crushed candy cane. I fully intended to dip mini pretzel crisps into dark chocolate and garnish them with mini chocolate chips but, I misjudged the size of the mini pretzel crisps that I bought and decided they were way too small (and I am way too lazy to dip each one). Instead, I adapted, morphing the ingredients into a (much quicker and easier than dipping), Dark Chocolate Pretzel Bark

Dark Chocolate Pretzel Bark
By Deb, Kahakai Kitchen

1 bag (9-oz-ish) dark chocolate chips*
1 cup broken pretzels or mini pretzels*
1 1/2 Tbsp mini dark chocolate chips*
coarse sea salt

(*I used Enjoy Life's (dairy, nut, & soy-free) dark chocolate chips which are 69% cacao, their mini chips to garnish, and Snack Factory Pretzel Crisp Minis (gluten free) but you can use whatever kind of chocolate and pretzels you prefer.) 

Line a small 1/2 baking sheet or pan with with parchment or waxed paper and set aside.

Place the dark chocolate chips in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave in 30-second intervals, stirring in between, until chocolate is completely melted and smooth.

Pour the chocolate into the prepared pan, spreading into an even layer with a spatula. Top with the pretzels, then sprinkle with mini-chocolate chips (aiming for the spaces between the pretzel bits) and coarse salt to garnish. 

Let chocolate bark set at room temperature for about an hour, then place in the fridge for another hour to harden completely. Peel bark away from parchment and break into pieces.

Store tightly covered in fridge. 

Notes/Results: Creamy dark chocolate, crunchy pretzel pieces and a touch of sea salt, this is a simple but yummy chocolate bark with a nice snap, It's perfect for when those sweet-salty cravings hit. Using vegan (& dairy, nut and soy-free) dark chocolate and gluten free pretzel crisps it's great for sharing, as even family and friends with food allergies and sensitivities can enjoy it. I'll definitely make it again.  

Note: A review copy of "The Invisibles" was provided to me by the publisher and TLC Book Tours in return for a fair and honest review. I was not compensated for this review and as always my thoughts and opinions are my own.

You can see the stops for the rest of this Book Tour and what other reviewers thought about the book here.