Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Jackamo's Cranberry Almond Cookies

(This blog post has been contributed by Jackamo, owner of the Sophisticated Tea Corner in the margin.)

Here is a delectable new dainty that is perfect for nibbling on while partaking an afternoon cup of tea.

Cranberry Almond Cookies

1 c butter, softened
3/4 c sugar
3/4 c firmly packed light brown sugar

1/2 tsp almond extract
2 large eggs
2 1/4 c all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 c chopped fresh cranberries
1 c slivered almonds, toasted

Beat butter at medium speed with an electric mixer until creamy; gradually add sugars, beating well. Add almond extract and eggs, beating until blended. Combine flour, baking powder, and salt; gradually add to butter mixture, beating at low speed until blended after each addition. Stir in cranberries and almonds. Drop by rounded Tbsps onto ungreased baking sheets.

Bake at 375 degrees for 9 to 11 minutes. Remove to wire racks to cool.

"Strange how a teapot can represent at the same time the comforts of solitude and the pleasures of company. " ~Author Unknown

"If man has no tea in him, he is incapable of understanding truth and beauty." ~Japanese Proverb

Monday, August 20, 2007

About the Weather

The end of last week dawned with the most glorious August weather I could ask for, and it's still here. Brilliant blue sky, cool breeze, and warm sun, with days in the low 70s and nights in the high 40s. I told Ickie that as much as I complain about hot, humid weather, I make it up by how giddy I am when cooler, drier weather rolls around. We went out adventuring on Prout's Neck Friday afternoon, and I told him my mood was just like Peter Parker in the "happy montage" in Spiderman 2. This morning as I drove over to the bay, the classical station decided to play Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, which just intoxicated me further. I can't think of a more fitting soundtrack to a mild summer day, surrounded by sparkling water and green lawns.

Those of you long-suffering Southerners with 100-plus temps are going to get sick of me waxing romantic about the ideal summer weather--first in Santa Barbara and now Maine. I know it doesn't seem fair, but to you I say: We have a spare room and a long-standing promise to make pie for any visitors who request it.

This barometric arcadia led to thoughts of how my constant fascination with the weather spills over into or out from my favorite books. The critical scene from my childhood is Lucy walking through the wardrobe into snow-covered firs. To this day I cannot see a lamppost in the snow without wishing I were really in Narnia, and I'm just a wee bit sympathetic with the White Witch for preferring winter (although not without Christmas, obviously!). Kenneth Grahame and L.M. Montgomery give unparalleled descriptions of all the seasons in their books, even to the point that I enjoy their brand of summer. Certain scenes fill me with a sense of coziness that acts as a surrogate fireplace.

On the other hand, there are books that raise my anxiety simply by adding oppressive heat and damp. The first that comes to mind is The African Queen by C.S. Forester. I can't think of a more miserable scene than Rose and Charlie struggling through the mangrove swamp amid bouts of paralyzing malaria. Periodically throughout the book I would raise my head only to once again repeat to Ickie that I was NEVER going to central Africa.

The Best Ideas Are Common Property

Okay, just deal with the fact that I'm blogging a lot about food this summer. For one thing, I've got more time to devote to cooking and to thinking about what I'm going to cook. I have time to go to the shops every day to get fresh ingredients, and the seafood here is cheap and plentiful. My foodie leisure time may have culminated on Saturday night when I created a scallop dish that causes angels to weep with joy, lobsters to hang their heads in shame, and zombies to reconsider their fondness for brains. We had this small casserole with fresh Italian bread, an arugula salad, and a Gavi that KK purchased for us when she was visiting.

Beth's Scallop Pseudo-Casserole

3/4-1 lb fresh scallops
4-6 Tbsp melted butter
1-2 Tbsp good olive oil
2 cloves minced garlic
sea salt and fresh pepper
2 slices of white sandwich bread in small dice
a few Tbsp finely shredded Piave cheese (optional)

Drizzle enough butter and olive oil into a small casserole dish to cover the bottom. Arrange scallops in the dish. Sprinkle with garlic, salt, and pepper. Top with breadcrumbs. Drizzle a few more Tbsps butter over crumbs. If desired, sprinkle the cheese on top.

Bake at 425 degrees for 13 minutes (more or less depending on scallop size--mine were medium). Allow to sit a few minutes prior to serving. This makes enough for an entree for two or an appetizer for four.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

A Welshman's Been Reading My Amazon List

I just finished Thursday Next: First Among Sequels. It's the fifth entry in the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde. I think I've mentioned my devotion to this series before here. The first book, The Eyre Affair, is vastly superior as a stand-alone novel and has the most arch villain. You'll want a basic knowledge of the plot of Jane Eyre in order to appreciate it. The sequels are for more devout bibliophiles, as Fforde makes so many literary references and inside jokes that no matter how well-read you are, you'll still miss a few. Fforde's books also include generous helpings of mystery, horror, SciFi, oral tradition, and metafiction.

I'd rate First Among Sequels as one of the weaker books in the series, along with Something Rotten. The plot moved a bit slow for me, although the action picked up in the end. However, I can't resist it because Fforde appears to have looked at my list of favorites and included all of them in some way in this sequel. Pride and Prejudice plays a central role, and Thursday visits the Hornblower series, a tearoom full of aunts in a Wodehouse novel, and Cold Comfort Farm (where Thursday does, incidentally, see something nasty in the woodshed). Additionally, there are references to The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and The Wind in the Willows, so I was gleefully suckered in. The series never takes itself too seriously, and even at its weakest, it's funny and clever.

The Thursday Next series (thus far) in order:
The Eyre Affair
Lost in a Good Book
The Well of Lost Plots
Something Rotten
Thursday Next: First Among Sequels

Monday, August 13, 2007

Fictional Counterpart

One of the favorite hypothetical discussions among my college roommates was “Who would play you in a movie of your life?” During that time I pretty much settled on Julia Louis Dreyfus (Elaine of "Seinfeld") but now I’m moving more toward Tina Fey (of the brilliant "30 Rock"). The answer to the question is more about personality than looks, even if they are both short, curly-haired women with glasses.

With this is mind, who do you consider your fictional counterpart in the book world? For me, the following come to mind as top contenders: Emily of New Moon (heroine of the Emily series by L.M. Montgomery), Hermione Granger, Lizzie Bennett, Flora Poste (of Cold Comfort Farm), Lucy Pevensie, Josephine March, and Blue Van Meer (of Special Topics in Calamity Physics). (I also share frizzy hair anxiety with Molly of Wives and Daughters.) None of them are 100% matches (only a few are afflicted with chronic Wanderlust like I am, and none of them get as excited about Melba Toast as I), but they each have backbone, are creative, or have moments with which I resonate strongly. The critical point is they are either nerdy or unconventional enough that they don’t fit in, yet in spite of some misgivings, they are their own odd selves. Perhaps it's the narcissist in me, but when I see a bit of myself in a book, I feel a sense of ownership over that character.

So, who are you?

Thursday, August 9, 2007

No One Understands My Jane

And this is why I won't be going to see the latest Austen atrocity, which looks so LAME in the trailers with its sappy pop song and obvious Rom-Com elements. Blech! All the same, I doubt I could despise it more than the Keira Knightley horror (reading the linked review also basically explains why I hated that one, although I have so many more reasons and get so angry just thinking about it that I'm not even going to discuss it here). Suffice it to say, I am QUITE PUT OUT.

Sunday, August 5, 2007


I once knew a guy in high school who ran away and joined the circus. I swear. We all called him Tiger. He was an athletic gymnast/diver, he was very intelligent (although seemed somewhat indifferent to his grades), and we once bonded over a Lewis Carroll anthology of poems and mathematical jokes. He seemed utterly unlike anyone else at my high school, and I wasn't completely surprised when I found out he joined the circus. He returned a few months later, but I didn't know him well enough to quiz him about his experience. Although he seemed like a laid-back, contented fellow, seemingly less affected by the social pressures of high school than most of us, I remember detecting a bit of melancholy in his demeanor. I don't know if the circus caused or just coincided with that, but I can't blame him for wanting to escape W.H.S.

What I learned from reading Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is that life in a third rate circus during the Great Depression sucked. (I also learned that Thomas Edison was vile.) No, seriously, the circus was even worse than you think. There are some pretty gritty scenes in the book, so be forewarned.

The protagonist, Jacob, in his 90s and discontent in a nursing home, tells in flashbacks about being orphaned just before completing his veterinary degree and running away with the circus. He's basically a decent, young guy in wretched circumstances. My friend Jenn told me she couldn't put this book down, and likewise I found it difficult. The ending came as a complete surprise to me and was thoroughly enchanting.

Gruen's chapters weave the past and present together well, and her excellent story is the result of some fascinating research and assimilation of circus myths and fact. It makes me reconsider the allure of running away. There is something so thrilling and terrifying about such an adventure. Think of how many children's books whisk the little ones away from home, or ponder the dizzying spontaneity of how The Hobbit begins.

However, I won't be running off anytime soon. If I had to run off and join a group, it wouldn't be the circus, or a cult, or a gypsy caravan, or a roving zombies mob, or an autonomous collective. Pirates are always tempting, but piratical society has tragically dwindled in recent years (suspiciously contrasting the advent of global warming!). I've always fancied myself a decent spy in the sense that I wouldn't make all those stupid errors in the movies, and I have no upper body strength, so I have a stronger incentive not to get caught. Plus, who would suspect me? I might already be a spy, for all you know.

Casserole Avoidance Syndrome

The heat makes me irritable and lethargic. There have been a few summers (in particular, balmy ones in homes where we had no air conditioning) when I've announced to Ickie in a disgruntled manner that the only things I'm "cooking" all summer long are salads and sandwiches. Certainly, there's a lot of good food that can be finagled into sandwich or salad form, but summer is also fresh fruit pie season and berry jam-making season, so I eventually end up over a steaming pot or in the vicinity of a hot oven. Usually I can send our meats and fish out the door with Ickie to the grill, and that is a relief.

Mark Bittman, the NYT columnist known as "The Minimalist" and author of one of my favorite cookbooks, just wrote an article including recipes for 101 simple meals for summer. Now, here is someone who understands what I need! Like him, I have several dinners I fall back on when the weather is oppressive. There is the occasional pot of boiling water involved, but it only takes about five minutes to get the job done. The key is to buy everything fresh the same day, and then you can spend that time in an air-conditioned store instead of your kitchen.

Shrimp Boil Picnic: I boil 1-1.5 pounds of fresh shrimp and serve with cocktail sauce, french bread, and a simple green salad. For this we put our picnic blanket on the living room floor, have it with a couple of beers, and watch BSG.

Ceviche: I use Daisy Martinez's recipe for Shrimp Cooked in Citrus Juice. I make it in the morning or evening when it's cooler and leave it in the fridge overnight. It's cold, crisp, and healthy, plus it's kind of like a science experiment to see the shrimp turning a delightful shade of pink in the acid! I like it with German Riesling.

Antipasto Picnic: Again the picnic blanket comes out on the living room floor. I fill a platter with rolls of prosciutto (or speck, which I prefer), a couple of fancy cheeses (piave is usually in the mix), olives (optional, since Ickie won't eat them), and sliced pears and/or apples or grapes. Sometimes there's an arugula salad, and always there's a loaf of fresh bread with high quality olive oil for dipping. We round it all off with an Italian red.

Grilled Swordfish: I get a couple of fresh swordfish steaks, rub them with olive oil and Cavender's Greek seasoning, and Ickie slaps them on the grill. We usually add a salad (I've been using pea shoots lately!) and bread to this too--notice a trend? And of course, a Pinot Grigio or Sav Blanc.

Gnocchi: I get the packaged gnocchi and boil it until it floats to the top (about 3 minutes). Then I toss it with olive oil, finely shredded piave cheese, sea salt, pepper, and some fresh parsley or basil if I have it. If you can't find piave, a pox on your local store, and you can substitute any hard, salty Italian cheese.

Saturday, August 4, 2007


I thoroughly enjoy a good action movie, especially one involving espionage. But with "good" being the operative word, they are hard to come by. Thankfully, I can always look forward to a Jason Bourne movie. We saw the third last night, and it was excellent: sneaky fun, migraine-inducing chase scenes, and an intelligent, sympathetic, ridiculously un-killable protagonist.

For my light summer reading fare, I did actually try to read The Bourne Identity, the first book in the series by Robert Ludlum. By chapter 12 I gave it up, disgusted and bored. It vaguely resembled the events in the movie and in almost no way resembled the characters played so likably by Franka Potente and the suffering Matt Damon. It's rare, but this is one of those occasions when Hollywood has dramatically improved upon the written material. Bravo, Liman, Greengrass.

Of the trilogy, Ickie and I agreed Identity had the weakest ending (falling down the stairwell) but the best car chase (Mini Cooper). Our favorite scene in Ultimatum had Bourne brilliantly navigating his journalist contact through Waterloo station, packed with CIA agents on their tail. Supremacy has the most emotional impact of the three, lending much gravity to Damon's character. Yet all three films succeed as a nearly seamless trilogy, with the third movie mirroring scenes from the first as well as effectively repeating my favorite line from Clive Owen: "Look at what they make you give." I told Chris the only thing that could make these movies better is more Clive Owen. Wouldn't it be fun if Bourne was equally matched with and pursued by "The Professor" throughout the series? Then maybe by the end they could team up and form some kind of super good-looking rogue spy team! And also come to our house for dinner.

Also, I wish there was more of Potente (who I'd want to include in that dinner, she just seems like fun--I mean, she bought a Vespa dealership, for heaven's sake), although I agree that the loss of her character is pertinent to the series's plot. She's the moral compass, and that moral direction is cemented in Bourne as a result of her death. (I think Franka Potente is so pretty, but in a very non-traditional sense. She's got those big German features, but it totally works for her, and I loved her in Run, Lola, Run, and I kind of want to have her hair from the Identity premiere. It's so red and stripey.)

Our only negative experience in the theater last night was sitting through the wretched mix of previews for other action movies, the worst of which was National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets. Apparently all the U.S. presidents have a book of secrets, and Ickie fantasized about how funny it would be if, once Nick Cage and his ragtag band of two-dimensional misfits find it, it's a little pink heart diary with a lock on it. If only! At one point I turned to Ickie and whispered "I can barely breathe what with the reek of Bruckheimer so thick in the room."

For a hilariously glowing review of The Bourne Ultimatum, click here. (Be forewarned that there's a good bit of profanity due to the reviewer's boyish excitement.) If you can't get out to the theater and need a good action/comedy on video, don't miss Hot Fuzz, which is absolutely BRILLIANT.