25 February 2010

The Year of the Flood

The Year of the Flood: A NovelI'm finding that I like Margaret Atwood's dystopian novels. I didn't like The Year of the Flood as much as I liked The Handmaid's Tale, but I enjoyed it. The end seemed a little weak to me though. Most of the book is flashbacks, but once you're caught up to the current time, there's a bit at the end in that time. I don't know if that part was just too short, or if it would have helped if I'd read Oryx and Crake, but I didn't like it as much as the rest of the book. Still, I thought it was an interesting read.

23 February 2010

New Noodles

I made noodles yesterday but wanted to try something different on them, so we topped them with chile paste, pickled cabbage, soy sauce, and black vinegar.  They were delicious.  Pickled cabbage and chile paste are both really easy to make at home.

20 February 2010

Samurai Shortstop

Samurai ShortstopThis was a book group read. It was okay, but at least it'll have some interesting things to talk about. At the end, the author wrote that some of the violent scenes were difficult to write, but he didn't feel like he could leave them out. He said they were difficult mostly because it was hard to show the main character doing things that today are completely unacceptable, but to also make him likeable. The main character certainly was likeable, but I didn't necessarily think he was authentic.

That's the problem in so much historical fiction.

13 February 2010

The History of the Medieval World

The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First CrusadeAfter being pleasantly surprised by Susan Wise Bauer's The History of the Ancient World, I was happy for the chance to read her new book, The History of the Medieval World. And I felt a lot the same way about this one that I did the first. This is very readable history. But I still had to skip those pesky Romans since they dominated the first bit of the book (well, by this time it was the Roman Empire).

What makes this series unique is that it's entirely chronological. I love that aspect and I think it's worth reading solely because of that and the readability.

But I do have some reservations. The main one is that no one, obviously, can be an expert on all of world history, so sometimes the books feel a bit like someone compiling information from other sources. It's not perfect, but what you get here is quite good. This will certainly be a good option for history for my children when they are in high school.

I had some specific concerns about this book. I wasn't too bothered by the way Islam was handled (although I would have written some things differently). A search through the bibliography shows a number of sources about Islam, which is good.

But I was disappointed by the coverage of Central Asia, especially regarding the Turkic people. The bibliography only has a few sources about Central Asia, and after checking the notes, only one book was used almost exclusively for most of the chapters. That book is Empire of the Steppes by Rene Grousset. It's an excellent book in many ways, but it's also 70 years old and somewhat dated. At the very least, some newer sources ought to have been consulted. David Christian's newer A History of Russia, Central Asia, and Mongolia was listed, but there was only one reference to it. Other references to the Turks were from books about India or about the Kurds or specifically about Turkey.

As a result, some of the terminology about Central Asia was dated. The Amu Darya was always called the Oxus, which was what the Greeks and Romans called it, not what the people of Central Asia called it (calling it the Amu Darya is an anachronism, of course, but at least it's a name that's used in Central Asia; Oxus never was). But more importantly, the distinction between the Turkic and Turkish people was never made clear (the only use of the word Turkic was in the reference from Christian's book; all references from Grousset used Turkish). The word Turkish is used today to refer to the people of the country of Turkey. Turkic is used for all the people who speak Turkic languages. Throughout most of the period covered in this book, Turkic would have been a better and clearer term since the Turks hadn't spread as far as Turkey till the end of the book, and they included people whose descendents are not Turkish.

Finally, I felt that the Turks were described from an outsider's view. They lived across the Oxus, they harassed the Persians and the Chinese, they "arrived" in Europe, they only were influential as mercenaries. It's hard to learn about their history except from other cultures, but I thought their impact on history could have been told differently.

I know most people don't care about Central Asia, but that's one reason why I think it's important to get details about Central Asia right. The Turkic people have a long and fascinating history, and they cover a huge swath of Asia from Siberia to Turkey. Their story is one worth telling, even briefly. They're more than just nomads harassing the civilized world. Even a few more words from another source would have been better.

Tahini Fish

This is from The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean

1 pound fish
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cayenne
1 T lemon juice

Combine in a baking dish and put in the fridge for an hour, if there's time.

Meanwhile, cut an onion into quarters or eighths and cook in 1-2 T olive oil till it's golden brown, about 15 minutes.

Also, make some tahini sauce. In a blender, combine 1/2 c tahini, 2 cloves of garlic, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 cup lemon juice, and 1/2 cup cold water and blend till smooth.

Heat the oven to 375. Cover the baking dish with foil and bake for about 10 minutes. Pull it out of the oven and cut the fish into bite-sized pieces. Stir in the onions and top with the tahini sauce. Bake for 15 more minutes.

This is really yummy with carrot salad. I usually serve it with couscous, or maybe rice.

Khmer Rice Soup

This is so easy and delicious, especially on a cold night. Here's the original recipe, which I think I follow.

In a small bowl, combine 1/2 pound ground pork (or less if needed) with 2 T fish sauce and 2 tsp sugar.

In a big pot, throw in 2-4 smashed stalks of lemongrass (I buy this in large quantities at Asian markets since it's very expensive at most grocery stores and it freezes well), two 1-inch pieces of smashed ginger, and 12 cups of water. Bring to a boil and boil for 5-10 minutes, then add 1 1/2 cups rice and stir till the water boils again. Lower the heat and gently boil for 15-20 minutes till the rice is tender. Remove from the heat. You can discard the lemongrass and ginger if you want.

While the soup is cooking, heat a bit of oil in a skillet and add 10 cloves of minced garlic. Cook briefly, then add the pork and cook till the meat has changed color. Dump into the soup. If the soup has been sitting long, heat it back up.

Top with well-washed bean sprouts, fried shallots, fish sauce, cayenne, and rice vinegar if you like.

Rice and Stuff

This is another flexible way to serve rice that makes the whole family happy.

Cook a big pot of rice. We prefer jasmine for this, but plain old American long-grain rice would work if that's all you have.

While the rice is cooking, make some stuff to go on it.

I love this sauce:

Oil
1 T black mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seed
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
Minced shallots, not too much
1/2 cup water
2 cups yogurt
1 tsp salt

Heat the oil and the mustard seeds in a small pot over medium-high heat till the mustard seeds have mostly popped (keep the lid on). Lower the heat and to medium and add the spices and shallots and stir-fry for a few minutes till the shallots have softened a bit. Add the water, then whisk in the yogurt. After it's combined well and the sauce is smooth, stir in a salt. Heat gently till the sauce is warm (don't boil). Serve over rice.

Middle son loves orange sauce. I'm not a big fan of our current recipe, so I'm not posting one till I find a better one.

The boys and I like pressed tofu on it. Cut some pressed tofu into 3/4-inch squares and stir-fry in a bit of oil, cayenne, and salt. Unfortunately, pressed tofu is expensive, so we rarely have it.

I also like this sauce:

1/2 c vinegar
1/2 c sugar
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 T crushed red pepper

Heat the vinegar and sugar to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Lower the heat and simmer 5 minutes. Meanwhile, mash the garlic, salt and pepper into a paste. Remove the vinegar from the stove and stir in the garlic paste. Let cool to room temperature before serving.

Oldest son usually makes curry for his rice. He uses a small can of coconut milk and 1-2 T of red curry paste.

When my husband thinks we've had too much Asian food he just puts olive oil and salt on the rice.

The two-year-old likes everything.

Cuban Black Beans

This is from Seductions of Rice.

4-6 cups cooked black beans
2 bay leaves
1 lime, cut in half

Put these in a pot with water to moisten well and start heating slowly.

2 T oil
4 cloves garlic
2 onions, minced
2 or 3 bell peppers, diced
1/4 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp oregano
1/2 T salt, or less, if you use fewer beans

While the beans heat, heat the oil in a skillet and add the onion. Cook for a few minutes, then add the garlic and cook till the onion is soft. Add the rest, mix well, then dump into the pot of beans. Bring the beans to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Add water if needed, then add salt or spice as needed if you like. Serve over rice.

Navajo Tacos

This is fry bread and refried beans topped with salsa and yogurt and maybe cheese if we're lucky that day.

For the beans, dump about 3 cups of cooked beans into the blender along with some chopped onion, garlic, salt and cayenne. I like cumin too, but one son doesn't. You can add some olive oil too, if you like. Blend that up, adding water till it's the consistency you like. Heat before serving if you like.

For the bread, combine 4 cups of flour (whole wheat is the only choice around here), 2 tsp baking powder, and 1 tsp salt. Add about two cups of warm water till you have a soft, kneadable dough. Divide the dough into eight pieces on a lightly floured surface. Roll each out and fry them. You're supposed to deep-fry them, but I just shallow fry them in about an inch of oil. Heat the oil over medium to medium-high heat and fry on each side till golden. Drain on paper towels.

Jonas's Noodles

This is a very flexible noodle dish that is easy and inexpensive. It's especially nice on a cold night.

Here's the original recipe. Here's how I make it:

Fill a big pot with water, then add some chopped coriander, peeled and sliced ginger, sliced garlic, anise, Sichuan pepper, and whatever chicken you're using (a lot is nice, but we usually just have about 1/3 pound). Bring to a boil, then simmer for about 40 minutes. Remove the chicken and cut it up or shred it. Strain the broth if you like then add some fish sauce and/or salt to taste.

While the broth is simmering, cook and drain 1 pound of rice noodles, any width.

To serve, place some noodles in your bowl, then pour some broth on (some like it pretty dry, we all love the broth here). Top with the chicken and various condiments. I like cayenne, sesame oil, sugar, rice vinegar, and fish sauce if it needs salt. One son just likes fish sauce. Another son like sesame oil, soy sauce, black vinegar, fish sauce, and lots of cayenne. The two-year-old likes everything.

Pasta Primavera

Chop up a small onion, lots of garlic, a green bell pepper, one zucchini, and a small head of broccoli and saute till the vegetables are cooked but not mushy. Tender-crisp is lovely. Add some tomato sauce (I use tomato paste and water, because it's just tomatoes and cheaper than canned tomato paste) so there's enough sauce for your pasta. Add some salt and cayenne and serve hot over pasta.

I like it this way, but other members of the family insist it needs sausage. Usually we don't have sausage.

10 February 2010

The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the RyeYes, this was the first time I've read this book, and no, I didn't read it because of Salinger's recent death.  It's been scheduled for one of my book groups for several months.  And no, I don't like the cover that's pictured here, but it was about my only option.

So.  I liked it, but I wish now I'd read it in high school, because I think I'd have liked it more then.  Or at least I'd have found it interesting to compare my reaction to it then to what it is now.  Of course, I probably wouldn't have read it in high school, because of all the swearing.  Now I didn't notice it; it's not overdone, I thought, and it doesn't feel in-your-face.  It's just there. 

I imagine everything to say that could be said about this book has been said, so I'll just say I enjoyed it. I really did.  Even if you have to be in the mood for this sort of book.

06 February 2010

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

This is one of those books that I've been meaning to read for years, but never got around to.  I wish I'd read it sooner, because it deserves its spot on so many lists as a must read.  I loved it, everything about it.  Highly recommended.  This would be an excellent book for a book group.

04 February 2010

Moving Again or Selling Books

So we moved back to our original apartment last week.  A clean, dry, not moldy apartment with lots more space than the temporary apartment had.  It's good to be home.

But moving twice in five weeks finally killed the need in me to keep my books.  I can't keep hauling them around.  So we sold over 300 books last Saturday.  That was hard. But I couldn't face hauling them all upstairs again.  We still have well over 500 books, so there's still plenty of hauling around to do, but a lot of the heavy ones stayed downstairs.  And the boys took the upstairs books up for me.  Their knees and backs are still strong.

I couldn't have sold the books without purchasing ereaders first.  I've got a whole lotta posts in my head about those.

Artemis Fowl

Artemis Fowl (Artemis Fowl, Book 1)I read this one last weekend for a book group.  I'm glad I did, since I've heard so much about.  I didn't love it though.  I thought it was interesting, but I don't need to read any of the others.  I'm also not really sure what we'll have to discuss.  I can think of a few things, but I might be going for the food in a few weeks.