Thursday, December 31, 2015

Review: Death Comes To Kurland Hall

Death Comes To Kurland Hall Death Comes To Kurland Hall by Catherine Lloyd
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was the third, and I think, final installment in Lucy Harrington and Major Kurland's story. It's a cozy story, totally predictable, but fun. This particular plot was a bit convoluted, with several deaths, and several secrets unveiled, but Lucy and Major Kurland come to the inevitable ending you know was going to happen in volume 1. Not quite Georgette Heyer quality, but a good imitation.

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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Christmas 2015

Now that our boys are adults, Christmas passes quietly and this year was no exception.  Elder Son spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with us, and we enjoyed our traditional meal on Christmas Eve -- Swedish meatballs.
In a break from tradition, we enjoyed bacon and waffles for breakfast instead of pound cake and coffee.

 And in another break with tradition I cooked a turkey for Christmas which fell completely apart when I took it out of the roasting pan. Still very moist, but it just fell apart.  Made it easy for cutting all the meat off the bone.  We all enjoyed our gifts --- for the first time ever, my husband asked me for a list, and then went and got everything on it!  (It was a small list --- biggest item on the list was a wooden cutting board.)

It was definitely an unusually warm Christmas!  In the 60's°!  Here I am enjoying the sunshine on our deck.

Even the bees were confused!

Then the busy time started.  I had the brilliant idea of hosting an open house on Sunday.  It was great!  I always overestimate how much food I should prepare, and so we are still dealing with leftovers both from the turkey and the party.

I made mushroom turnovers at my husband's request:

And I made Brie Bites:

Of course there were finger sandwiches, chips, dip, shrimp cocktail,  cheese and crackers, and punch, beer, wine, and soda.

The party was a huge success, and people stayed to chat which was wonderful.   Of course, Monday morning I was in a fog of exhaustion, but it was the good kind of exhaustion.

We are having friends over for New Year's Eve dinner, but it's going to be really low key.
I think I'm done cooking for the year too!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Review: As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Once again Alan Bradley delights me. Flavia de Luce has been, in her own words, banished to the wilds of Toronto, Canada and to the rigors of her mother's former boarding school. On her first night, a mummified corpse falls out of her bedroom chimney. As she investigates, Flavia discovers some astounding information about her mother, and the reasons she's been sent to Canada.

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Review: The Cantor Wore Crinolines

The Cantor Wore Crinolines The Cantor Wore Crinolines by Mark Schweizer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Humorous, but not one of the best in the series. It felt a lot like Haydn's detective story --- lots of similes, hyperbole, and deus ex machina involved. A very quick read.

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Sunday, December 27, 2015

Review: Unfamiliar Fishes

Unfamiliar Fishes Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An interesting read, but not as good as The Wordy Shipmates. Vowell describes the disintegration of traditional Hawaiian culture over a period of just under 125 years, from the first European contact in 1778, hastened by American missionaries, and aided by the Hawaiians themselves, and ending with annexation at the end of the Spanish-American war. It's a pretty sad story. Her personal biases come through loud and clear, often with her trademark humor. I was surprised to learn that much of Maui was desert-like, and that finding fresh water was often difficult.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Review: The Rumor

The Rumor The Rumor by Elin Hilderbrand
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I haven't read an Elin Hilderbrand I haven't liked, and this is no exception. Hilderbrand is really good at capturing the atmosphere and ambience of a place and time, summer on Nantucket.

Madeline, successful novelist, is struggling to find an idea for her next novel, while her best friend Grace is falling in love with her gardener. Both women are long married, with families who are very close, so close in fact, that Grace's son and Madeline's daughter are dating. Grace's husband is struggling financially and is desperate to make some serious money. Mix in the community's penchant for rumor and gossip, and watch the sparks fly!

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Monday, December 21, 2015

Cabbage and Beet Soup

Sunday's  main meal of the day was soup!

I don't follow a recipe as such, so this is just a general guideline to be adapted to your taste.  It's one of those recipes that quantity doesn't matter either.

Basic Ingredients:

1 lb ground beef
1 medium onion chopped
1 large can of diced tomatoes and their juice
1 small can tomato paste
4-6 cups beef broth  approximate
1/2 a head of cabbage sliced and chopped
1/3 cup cider vinegar (quantity is flexible based on your tastes)
1/3 cup sugar (quantity is flexible based on your tastes)

Can also add:
2-3 carrots sliced
V-8 instead of tomato paste
celery chopped
other root veggies you want to use up - Last night I needed to use up some beets, so I cut up about a pound of golden and red beets into bite-size chunks and added that.


Brown the ground beef and add the onions while it's browning.  Drain the beef if there's too much fat.  Add all the rest of the ingredients except vinegar, sugar, and cabbage.  Bring to a boil, and simmer for about 20 minutes, and any root vegetables you've added are tender.  Add the cabbage and begin to add the sugar and vinegar, tasting until you get the right amount of sweet/sour tang.  Simmer another 20 minutes or so.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Review: Rack, Ruin and Murder

Rack, Ruin and Murder Rack, Ruin and Murder by Ann Granger
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this second entry into this series. Monty Bickerstaffe is the owner of Balaclava House, which has gone to the rack and ruin of the title. He's almost 80, almost crippled with arthritis, and he lives happily alone in his decrepit home until one day, he discovers a body sitting on the sofa in his living room. Not only does he not know who the corpse is, but he also has no idea that a bedroom on the second floor of his home has been used regularly. Jess Campbell investigates the suspicious death, aided by Ian Carter, her superintendent. This was a cozy read, with likable characters and a bit of a twist at the end.

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Saturday, December 19, 2015

Review: Last Bus to Wisdom

Last Bus to Wisdom Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Donal Cameron, 11 years old, lives with his grandmother on a ranch in Montana. When his grandmother needs a serious operation, she sends him to live temporarily with his great aunt Kate in Wisconsin. Life in Wisconsin is difficult, and eventually he's sent back to Montana. That's the set up for the novel about life and the power of imagination. Most of the book takes place on "the dog bus" otherwise known as a Greyhound bus. In part one of the novel, it's 1951 and Donal sets off to Wisconsin armed with an ancient wicker suitcase, a pair of beaded moccasins, $30, a possibly stolen arrowhead, and his autograph book. Donal has a ready imagination and can whip up a story faster than a Kitchenaid whips cream. His interactions with the various passengers run the gamut - often humorous, and sometimes dangerous. He sees the bus trip as a way to garner signatures for his autograph book. Once he reaches his great aunt's home, he has to deal with the trials of learning canasta and staying in his aunt's good graces. He makes a friend of his uncle Herman, who has the talent of being able to name a beer just by tasting it. When Donal is sent back home to Montana, he is joined by his uncle who has had it with Kate's ironfisted control of his life. And that leads into part 2 of the novel which is the story of their journey to see the West. Donal discovers that there's more to Herman than a former cargo ship boilertender on disability. The pair experience the dishonesty of fellow humans as well as their generosity. This book is a quest adventure, as Herman seeks to experience the Wild West, and Donal wants to find a place he can call home. It's also quite humorous. I stayed up till after 1 am to finish this book.

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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Review: Kitchens of the Great Midwest

Kitchens of the Great Midwest Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was an interesting read, and definitely made me hungry while I was reading it. It's unusual in that although the central character is Eva Thorvald, much of the book is more about the people she comes in contact with than with her directly. Eva's mother abandons her shortly after birth, and her father Lars has a fatal heart attack shortly thereafter. Eva is raised by her aunt and uncle. Although greatly loved, she doesn't fit in. And in a way another major character is food. . Each chapter in the book focuses on a pivotal food experience in Eva's life which form her into chef of great renown. The ending of the book closes an open circle in one respect, but also left me with questions.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Sittin' and Stewin'

Actually while I may be actually sitting down while I type this, it's the first time all day.    After getting some laundry going, I headed out to a big box store to try and find some stocking stuffers for my husband and elder son, and to buy some golden raisins, dates, and apricots for the fruit cake I am hoping to make tomorrow.  I was not particularly successful in finding the stocking items, but I did manage to get the dried fruit.  I also managed to buy some shampoo and unmentionables for me, and Lindor White Chocolate Peppermint Truffles.  I also finally found a hand held pencil sharpener for my colored pencils.  I am destroying the electric sharpener with them.

When I got home, I put together this beef stew/soup for dinner tonight (and lunches for the next few days!)

I didn't follow a recipe; I just put it together from what's in the larder.  Exact quantities don't matter, and the veggies can be changed up.  In fact, I will probably throw in some left over veggies from last night's dinner (originally frozen mixed vegetables - peas, carrots, corn, and lima beans) shortly before serving.

A Beef and Beer (!) Stew

1.25 lb lean stew beef
flour to coat beef pieces
1 tbs olive oil
2 medium onions,  chopped in 1 inch pieces
2 sweet potatoes, chopped into 1 inch pieces
1 small celeriac root, chopped into 1 inch pieces
2 garlic cloves crushed
2 potatoes, chopped into 1 inch pieces
1 very large parsnip, sliced 
1 bottle dark beer (I used a Sam Adams chocolate bock)
1 large can diced tomatoes
3 bay leaves
1 tsp marjoram
1 tsp bouquet garni
1 tsp beef soup base (a bouillon paste)
salt and pepper

Heat olive oil in Dutch oven.  Lightly coat beef pieces in flour and brown in hot oil.  Add onions and cook for about 1 minute.  Add beer, all the veggies, the tomatoes, and the seasonings.  Cover and simmer for about 40  minutes or until veggies are done.  Adjust seasonings to your preference.    

Monday, December 14, 2015

Review: The Burned Bridges of Ward, Nebraska

The Burned Bridges of Ward, Nebraska The Burned Bridges of Ward, Nebraska by Eileen Curtright
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

A book needs a plot, but I'm 57% through and I haven't found one yet. I don't like the main character either. I don't often abandon books, but I'm giving up on this one.

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Sunday, December 13, 2015

Really Good Crockpot Chicken

I put this together in my crockpot and my husband and I decided it was a keeper.  It was one of those recipes that started with an idea cadged from several other recipes, but because of our personal tastes and what I had on hand, morphed into something else.  I thought I'd taken a picture of it, but apparently I didn't.

Spicy Apple Brandy Crockpot Chicken

1/4 cup brandy
1/4 cup ketchup
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup water
1/3 cup apple sauce
2 tbs honey
2 tbs cider vinegar
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
3 cloves minced garlic
1 tsp fresh grated ginger
1-2 lbs boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite size pieces.  (I had a package of 5 thighs, and had plenty of sauce.
3 tbs cornstarch
1/2 cup dry roasted peanuts

In a crockpot, mix together the first 11 ingredients.  Add the chicken and cook on low about 6 hours.  

About 20 minutes before serving, mix 3 tbs into 3 tbs of water, then add about 1/2 cup of the crockpot liquid to it and mix together well.  Pour it all back into the crockpot and continue cooking until sauce has thickened.  Just before serving, add about 1/2 cup of dry roasted peanuts to the crockpot.

Serve over rice or noodles.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Coloring Advent

I still haven't figured where I packed my Advent candle set since our move 18 months ago, so this is the 2nd Advent season without it.  Maybe next year.  I have my Nativity set up, although I had to reimagine its display when I realized last year that I no longer have a buffet/sideboard where it has sat for many years.

So when I saw this for sale, I decided to venture into the land of adult coloring books.
This has become a blessing.

Each morning so far, I have put on some instrumental or classical Christmas music, and spent about an hour coloring the day's offering. I read the very short quote,  hymn line, or Bible verse associated with the day's picture, and open up my box of colored pencils.  As I listen to the music, and concentrate on the act of coloring, I can feel myself "letting go".  My mind empties, and leaves itself open.  I am not an artist, and I don't have an instinctive feel for what colors go together well.  I've made mistakes with colors or placement.  But it doesn't matter.  In fact, one morning I realized that life was like my coloring.  There is a pattern, though you don't always see it until later, you will make mistakes, and sometimes the best you can do is concentrate on where you are at the moment and do the best you can at the time.  And sometimes you worry too much about the detail and forget to look at the whole.    

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Review: Say It with Poison

Say It with Poison Say It with Poison by Ann Granger
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Meredith Mitchell, a British consul, has returned to England to attend her goddaughter's wedding, and to visit her cousin. She soon discovers that the bride seems to be hiding a secret, and her cousin is very uneasy. And then she discovers the body of a young man living nearby. Meredith does some investigating, against the wishes of the D.I. Markby, and soon figures out who's behind the murder.

I liked this first entry into the Mitchell and Markby series, although it was slow to get going. I hope I can find the next few books in the series; they were published in the early 90's in England and seem to just be making their way across the Atlantic.

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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Review: Real Good Church: How Our Church Came Back from the Dead, and Yours Can, Too

Real Good Church: How Our Church Came Back from the Dead, and Yours Can, Too Real Good Church: How Our Church Came Back from the Dead, and Yours Can, Too by Molly Phinney Baskette
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My church is withering on the vine, and for the past few years we've been re-visioning ourselves. This book was chosen by the interim pastor for a book study in which I participated. This is a very readable book on some levels, but it definitely challenges the entrenched culture many mainline churches share. Unless a congregation is willing to radically change its culture, that congregation will probably not survive. That's the discouraging take away. On the other hand, this is the story of how one dying congregation resurrected itself. Many of the ideas and suggestions are spot-on: preach and teach with authenticity, know your demographics, use technology to communicate, eliminate jargon and coded language, be visible and active in your community, make your building attractive and easy to navigate. Knowing that there are concrete steps, many of which are inexpensive, is encouraging. Our church had already begun some of these suggestions, and are implementing others. However, I think that the author, Rev. Molly Baskette, vastily underestimates her role in the change process. I think this process may be too difficult to maintain for the length of time it needs without consistent, committed leadership and direction.

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Monday, December 7, 2015

Review: Home Fires: The Story of the Women's Institute in the Second World War

Home Fires: The Story of the Women's Institute in the Second World War Home Fires: The Story of the Women's Institute in the Second World War by Julie Summers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a fascinating account of the British Women's Institute and its contributions, especially during World War II. The recent PBS series "Homefires" was inspired by it, although the stories and characters of the TV series were fictionalized. I knew next to nothing about the WI, other than it was a popular women's group in Britain, and I thought it was primarily a social organization. In fact it was the largest organization of women devoted to making life better for the small communities in which the groups flourished. It was instrumental in developing government policies dealing with health, education, nutrition, and housing before, during, and after the war. The British government recognized the power of the group, and used it to spur food production. Some of the statistics shared in this very well-researched book were mind-boggling! In 1940 the WI was responsible for making enough jam to support 2 million people with a year's supply of jam at the current ration allotment of 1/4 lb of jam every two months. While jam-making was a well-publicized venture, the WI was also busy collecting foxglove and belladonna so that the plants could be used to make digitalis which was in very short supply. I found myself reading bits and pieces of the book to my husband as I discovered new information. The author does a terrific job of illustrating just how difficult life was during the war for those left at home. Few homes had running water, indoor plumbing, or central heating. The amount of work it took to run a household is staggering by today's standards, and when the war time restrictions on food, clothing, fuel, etc were in place it was even harder. There are lots of facts and figures in the book, but there are enough personal stories and anecdotes to balance them and make this such an interesting read.

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Friday, December 4, 2015

Soup of the Week

Homemade Cream of Mushroom Soup

It may not be the prettiest soup I've ever made, but wow! It is DELICIOUS!   I used a couple of different recipes to create my own version.  This serves about 6 people and takes about 35 minutes from start to finish.  It's really good as leftovers too.

2 12 oz packages of white mushrooms
1 tbs olive oil
3 tbs butter
3 small leeks, sliced thinly
2 large cloves of garlic, minced (about 1 to 1 1/2 tbs)
3 cups of chicken broth
1 tsp of thyme
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 tsp nutmeg (optional)
1/2 cup heavy cream

Clean mushrooms of any clinging dirt.  Roughly chop or slice.  In a heavy pot or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil and butter.  Add the chopped mushrooms and saute until they've turned brown and released most of their water.  Remove about 3/4 cup of mushrooms and set aside.  Add leeks and garlic to pan and continue cooking until leeks are soft.  Add the chicken broth and thyme and bring to a simmer. Cook uncovered for 10-15 minutes.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Remove from heat and use an immersion blender to puree soup.  (Or use a blender, but be sure to blend in small batches).  If you want a thinner soup, add some more heated broth or water.  If you are serving this immediately whisk in the heavy cream and nutmeg. Add the reserved mushrooms back in or top each serving with them.   Otherwise, when you are read to serve, reheat pureed soup to desired temperature, remove from heat, and whisk in the nutmeg and heavy cream, and add in the reserved mushrooms.

This serves about 6.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Review: Come Rain or Come Shine

Come Rain or Come Shine Come Rain or Come Shine by Jan Karon
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I haven't been in Mitford for a while, so I did start reading this with the need to remember all the back stories. That wasn't the problem though. I had a really hard time knowing who was narrating. The narration was shared by Lace, Dooley, and Father Tim, primarily, and it was really hard to catch on to who was talking. I had to go back and re-read several times once I figured out who the narrator was. Other than that, it was a pretty straight forward account of Lace and Dooley's wedding. A little preachier than I remembered other books being.

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Tuesday, December 1, 2015


Thanksgiving is definitely one of the times we make every effort to celebrate our blessings with as much family as possible.  This year we traveled to CT to share the day with two of my first cousins and their families.  One of our sons was also able to make it too.  When I was a kid, these were the cousins I shared all the holidays with.  We lived in the same town, and our celebrations included their parents, and when I was really young, my grandmother.  Sometimes my cousins from West Virginia would be able to join us, and for a few years, at least we had 3 generations gathered.  The tables were full -- 20-25 people.   Our parents are all gone now, but there are still 3 generations --- we're just the oldest now instead of the youngest.

In addition to enriching existing connections, I had the great blessing of creating new connections!  My father's brother (both now deceased) lived in Brazil where he married and had 3 sons.  I met one of my cousins briefly when I was in college, but never met any of the other family.  Through the magic of the internet, specifically Facebook, I connected with my Brazilian relatives.  One of them,  the son of my first cousin, (1st cousin once removed, to be technical), was in the northeast on business. After a flurry of FB messages, we found a place and time where we could meet!  So on Saturday, we traveled about an hour away to meet and have lunch with him.  We had a lovely afternoon, and both of us managed to fill in gaps on our family trees.  We're continuing our conversations and we're hoping to go to Brazil to meet the rest of the family sometime next year!