Meatless Mondays – Vegetable Paella: hold the gravel, but don’t skimp on the saffron!

saffron
Saffron

A friend of mine recently expressed a preference for chicken paella over that made with seafood. You know exactly what I was thinking…and the following post is a tried and true recipe for vegetable paella!

I recall an entertaining chapter in Derek Lambert’s book, Spanish Lessons, in which the author’s wife carefully plans a dinner party while they are residing in Spain. Paella will be the main attraction, for which they rent a huge pan to cook the dish over an open fire. In a comedy of errors, two of their “friends” drop the pan and spill much of the ingredients on top of some gravel that had been brought to the yard during their remodel. Not wanting to admit their mistake, the men just scoop up what they can and pick out the obvious pieces of gravel. You can just imagine what happens at the table as the guests begin eating…

No, this recipe doesn’t contain gravel. What is paella, you might ask. It’s a traditional Spanish, or Valencian, dish that contains rice, often various meats or seafood, and a variety of legumes and vegetables. To me, the taste is dictated by the main spice: saffron. Sure, it’s expensive, but adds a deep, earthy flavor that is crucial to success.

Shopping List (amounts vary depending on your preferences)

Saffron
Paprika
Rosemary (if desired: sprig of fresh or dried)
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil
Vegetable stock (have at least 2 cups handy, but could also use part water)
Garlic (chopped)
Onion (diced)
Red, orange, and yellow bell peppers (long slices)
Tomatoes (diced: fresh or canned)
Green beans (cut: fresh)
Eggplant (hefty chunks)
Portabella mushrooms (large, cut into thick slices)
Chickpeas (canned or pre-cooked)
Rice (Arborio or other; I’ve used gluten-free with success)

Soak a healthy pinch of saffron strands in a bit of hot water. In a large, low pan, stir fry the eggplant, onion, garlic, and peppers in olive oil to soften. Add rice (at least 1 cup), stock, tomatoes, saffron, rosemary (if wanted) and a few teaspoons of paprika. Bring to a boil and turn down to simmer, uncovered, for at least 10 minutes. Stir as needed, although some cooks like to allow the rice to cake a bit on the bottom of the pan, being careful not to let it burn.

Add the chickpeas, green beans, and mushrooms. Cook about 15 minutes longer, or until the rice is softened and the mixture is thick and bubbly. If you plan to imbibe, a good Spanish red would go nicely!

paella

 

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Peter Mayle: A Life in Provence

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I was recently saddened to learn that one of my favorite authors, Peter Mayle, has died. The first book I ever bought by Mr. Mayle was Where Did I Come From?, which was purchased over 40 years ago in anticipation of telling my children about the facts of life. Decades later, when I was introduced to his travel memoir, A Year in Provence, I had no idea that this was even the same author. During the intervening years, he had published several other books for children and worked in advertising. He and his wife then took the plunge and gave up their lives in England to relocate in France.

The book was serialized for the BBC, and I came across the videos (yes, videos) at the library, while living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Filmed in Provence, the story was mesmerizing. I could relate in some small way to what he and his wife faced, having myself moved to various parts of the U.S. and adjusted to unfamiliar cultures. Those changes never required learning another language, however!

The views and vistas portrayed in the films were like nothing I have ever had access to on a daily basis, even in the most scenic areas of Michigan’s Great Lakes, North Carolina’s shores, Virginia’s mountains, or Texas Hill Country. Beyond the story’s familiar theme of moving to a different type of world, one can also find the more elusive theme of life never being too far along to try something new. This is such an important belief, and I think it resonates for many of us.

The mini-series wasn’t a critical success, evidently, although John Thaw’s portrayal of Peter Mayle was excellent. I loved it, though, and have watched it more times than I care to admit. Thanks to finding the series on the dusty bottom shelf at the library, I was led to the body of works by this wonderful author. I still remember the pleasure of cuddling up by the fireplace with a snowstorm raging outdoors and experiencing the warmth of the French countryside and the scent of lavender.

Peter Mayle wrote several successful sequels to that book, which are presented a bit more like collections of short stories. All the books contain humor, food, wine, weather, friendship, local culture and beautiful locales. How else would I ever have bumped into truffles (the mushroom-like fungi, not the chocolates), boules, the mistral, or pastis? This author wrote other enjoyable non-fiction, in addition, usually centered on various interesting aspects of French culture. To my delight, there were also his novels to devour, which portray many of the same characteristics as his memoirs, along with crimes solved, business deals conducted and wine produced. There’s some romance to be found, as well. A lovely movie with Russell Crowe and Marion Cotillard is based on Mayle’s book, A Good Year.

With regret, I have to admit that I didn’t bring the entire collection of Mr. Mayle’s books with me when I moved. I did keep A Year in Provence, of course, and I especially value my ARC (advance reading copy/uncorrected proof) of A Good Year, with the plain blue cover. This format seems just that much closer to the author’s keyboard, somehow.

Try his first book, and if you love it, you’ll have a treasure trove to explore beyond that one. I’m extremely sorry that he’s gone, but surely this author knew that his writing had affected the lives of others, as evidenced by the book sales and fans, increased tourism to Provence, and readers who sought him out when visiting the region.

Merci, Monsieur Mayle!

Love Trumps Hate – Your Help Please – Reblog by Anne Lee Wissinger at Nerdy Book Club

Just my small way of trying to counteract intolerance and racism. Please read this wonderful repost by Anne Lee Wissinger at Nerdy Book Club!

Nerdy Book Club

January 12, 2018

Dear Nerdy Book Club Friends,

Over the past week I have read some important books: The Truth As Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor, re-read Love by Matt de la Peña and Loren Long, re-read Martin Rising by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney, and Projekt 1065 by Alan Gratz.

The themes of these books wash over me and taunt me. Will you be as brave and courageous as these characters and the writers and artists who created them?

This morning it seems like some kind of cosmic call to action that such racist comments were made by the President on the eve of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.   It is also my daughter’s golden birthday today, turning 12 on the 12th. She goes to her middle school 40 minutes early each day because she is afraid of the bullies who congregate at the…

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Putting the “I” Back into Cook-I-ng

vintage kitchen

I spent years trying to please others through the act of cooking. As a young newlywed, I collected recipes that I wanted to try out on my husband and promptly struck out. If it didn’t look like something that his mother or grandmother often made, then he wouldn’t even taste it. For example, only “fried chicken” was acceptable, he said, and my attempt at that dish was met with disdain. Come to find out, his mother’s secret for “fried chicken” was really “Shake-n-Bake”! I gave up before I even got started. Over the years, I found quick and inexpensive foods that my daughters would eat. End of story (and marriage).

My second husband was a self-taught gourmet cook. No, I’m not just saying this in case he still reads my blog. He really is that accomplished and taught me a lot about cooking methods and ingredients. We took turns cooking, and I have to admit, that as my skills grew, I began to feel a bit competitive. My dishes started to turn out wonderfully and earned well-deserved praise. When my efforts didn’t work out, there were no polite or pretend compliments from him, either.

Cooking never came naturally to me, however, and I almost always relied on cook books and carefully measured ingredients. If a recipe was successful, I made a note of it on the inside of the book for future reference. Sometimes the pressure of producing acceptable meals was a negative force. Things went downhill when I started having digestive problems and had to give up many of our favorite foods and most wine. I won’t pretend these restrictions caused the end of our marriage, but they certainly did alter the daily dynamic of an already strained relationship.

I currently find myself “cooking for one,” a phrase that I’ve never really liked. I don’t even much care for recipes that say, “Cooking for Two,” as if someone is missing and this is all you have left. I occasionally prepare a meal for others, but more often than not, there’s one plate on my faux-Victorian dining table.

I made the early decision NOT to fall into the trap of watching television while eating. Sometimes I listen to my music, or enjoy tunes that emanate from a local activity in the Square, like the one going on as I write this piece. Other times, I read from a novel or non-fiction of recent interest, such as Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr. Weak indirect lighting over my table was an issue for reading. To fix that problem, I recently splurged on an attractive, industrial-style table lamp with a high-powered bulb, in an old-fashioned tone of light green.

Another big change is WHAT I make for dinner.  First of all, I’ve cut way back on meat and more often turn to other forms of protein…eggs, tofu, beans, and occasional seafood. Sometimes just a large salad appeals to me, and I jazz it up with some of my favorites, like olives, capers, and fresh veggies lightly cooked. My go-to cheeses are feta and goat, since they seem easier for me to digest. Olive oil ALWAYS for cooking and salads! I rarely buy according to a recipe, now, but purchase ingredients that look good to me and then just decide what to do with them, later.

I’m starting to have fun with this and don’t think I’ll go back to eating by candlelight any time soon. Following is one of my recent culinary creations:

Egg-cellent Baked Mushrooms

portobello-

One or two extra-large portabella/portobello mushrooms, stems removed, cap side up in baking pan

One egg for each, cracked open into the mushroom cap

Your choice of fresh or dried herbs to taste

Light sprinkling of cheese, if desired

Bake at 350˚-400˚ until egg is set to your liking and mushroom is sufficiently tender (about 20 minutes minimum).         

 

Dealing with Personal Issues through Our Characters

 

head

Spring is the season of renewal and new growth. It can also be a time to reflect on pleasant memories or to revisit excruciating challenges that still haunt us. I recently read an intriguing article, “Dangerous Writing: Go to Your Battlefield”, by author and teacher, Tom Spanbauer. (Poets & Writers, January/February 2016). At the risk of being too general, he speaks about digging deeply into ourselves, to address difficult topics that are important to us, in order to shape our fictional works. His words certainly opened my eyes.

Throughout the course of Spanbauer’s piece, I realized some important facts about my own work. As most writers of fiction, I borrow from reality and include snippets of this person and that individual in the characters I attempt to bring alive. What I hadn’t faced is that some of their problems, issues, and challenges are my own, and I may be using the writing to work through them.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that I’ve brought any of these  scenarios full circle to solutions. Guess that I’ve danced on the edge of danger, but haven’t really dived in. I plan to revisit my own “dangerous writing” and push it to the limit, getting everything I can out of the telling. I hope that the resulting characters will appear even more realistic and some personal answers will materialize, as well.

Spring beckons, along with buds erupting on trees, flowers poking through dark earth, and birds singing new songs. We don’t have to “start over” to begin again. Whatever we face might be just a little easier, a touch sweeter, or a bit brighter by giving in to the season and wringing it for all it has to offer. Use it to the extent of its worth. After all, we don’t have forever…do we?

Uprooted and Transplanted: ‘Moving’ and ‘Starting Over’ as Themes in Writing

roots by lake superior

I’m moving to a different city in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in a few weeks, so that’s uppermost in my mind these days. All the endless details, half-filled boxes, scratched-out lists, and memories of these past years that grab me when least expected, bringing tears to my eyes. I’m sure that most of you have been there in one form or another. At this point, what better topic for my blog post?

I’ve always enjoyed books where the main character moves to a new home in an unfamiliar town. In the new spot, there’s the painting, organizing, exploring, and then… Stories with this theme seem to fit into about three categories, I’ve noticed. First, you have the ones where everything starts out hunky-dory, and then things start to go downhill quickly. Author Ira Levin was a master with this type, as exemplified in both Rosemary’s Baby and Stepford Wives. The protagonists’ new homes were great until they got involved with the suspicious and creepy neighbors. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, could also fit into this group, since the move made by the main characters from New York to Missouri was certainly a catalyst, fracturing an already fragile relationship.

Another plot line related to moving would be where it’s touch and go for a while, but eventually the lives of the characters you love turn out better than anyone could ever expect in their wildest imaginations. Think Safe Haven, by Nicholas Sparks. Girl runs away from abusive husband and hides out in idyllic location near the ocean. She meets handsome new love interest with adorable kids and, of course, things begin to go awry as her past threatens to catch up with her. After a breath-taking couple of twists in the plot, well, I won’t go into detail in case you still wanted to read this one.

The third group seems to be the most realistic, where the main character relocates for an often heart-rending reason and works toward building life anew. The Year of Pleasures by Elizabeth Berg fits neatly into this groove, with the main character experiencing the entire gamut of grief, introspection, doubts, small delights, and eventual self-actualization.

As I tape up my last box and throw away the final list, I’ll certainly be hoping that Ira Levin won’t be orchestrating my personal story from the great beyond, since I don’t think that I’d make a very good Satanist or robot. I picture myself more an Elizabeth Berg sort of an individual. Once transplanted in my new home, I’ll have to really get on the stick with my writing if I’m ever going to get a whiff of that self-actualization stuff. Knowing that I can use my new experiences and emotions as an impetus in my work is certainly a draw, and I can hardly wait to get back to it.

 

Culture Shock as Fodder for Writing

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An entire sub-genre of writing exists that zeroes in on people who leave their homes to set up housekeeping in radically different environments. The unfamiliar habits of the locals then make interesting and often amusing stories. Some of my favorites are offerings by Peter Mayle, Julia Child, Adam Gopnik and Frances Mayes. I love their books and often picture what it would be like to wake up and find myself in similar situations.

I’ve been thinking about this recently, while planning a trip to visit my daughters and their families in Texas. We lived there together, in what seems like another lifetime, after spending the beginning of our lives in Michigan. As the memories flood over me, I realize that I’ve lost sight of how alien everyday things sometimes seemed during those years. Many writers have experienced relocation to another culture, even if it’s not in France or Italy, and details of those experiences can add interesting twists to story plots.

For example, I remember the chuckles I received from several office mates one day in the “Lone Star State”, when I referred to stopping at the “party store for pop”. At the same time, I never understood why Texans called all soda pop “Coke”, no matter what the label said. At the end of a long workday, “See you guys” contrasted sharply with, “Bye, y’all”. There were differences wherever I turned. Due to the “Blue Laws”, sale of clothing on Sundays, at that time, wasn’t allowed, and many counties were “dry”, meaning they didn’t sell alcohol at all. Of course, the rich drawls and twangs took some getting used to, especially when my older daughter tried them on as her own. I had always thought of my speech as being just plain, but was told by my new friends that I spoke with a “funny accent”!

Travel outside the borders of one’s own state isn’t even required. Within Michigan, people living in the Upper and Lower Peninsulas have interesting differences in ways of speaking and in the foods they enjoy, just to name a few idiosyncrasies. If you’ve never tried cudighi, a type of sausage, or the meat pies called pasties, you still haven’t lived.

Do you think anyone will notice if I take notes during my Texas visit? I’ve forgotten so many of the cute little quirks and need a refresher for future writing!

For books about moves to parts unknown, my “Reading Lists” page details several authors with one of their titles, each, for starters.