My top books of 2009

There’s still a couple of weeks left, but I was adding books to my Goodreads list and thought I’d pull out this year’s 5-star books. It’s interesting to go back and see what I thought was incredibly good over the course of the year….

In alphabetical order, with some notes about what’s stuck with me since reading:

  • The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart
    Read right at the beginning of the year, and I still agree with my 5-star assessment. This book is incredibly important in understanding the social and political landscape of the US now.
  • The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care
    I think the clearest thing I’ve read on health care ever. If nothing else, helpful in providing a framework for understanding proposals. Don’t have time to read the book? He also did a Frontline special.
  • The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want
    Embarrassed to say that the lessons I got from this one have faded over the course of the year. I should probably go buy a copy.
  • The Invention of Air
    This one pairs nicely with The Age of Wonder, which I just finished — same period of history, similar focus on the cross-over of science and other endeavors (politics in one, poetry in the other). If you only have time to read one, though, go with this one. Shorter, more direct connections to the present, and fabulous writing style.
  • The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia
    The particulars didn’t stick much — had to reread my review to remember why I was so enthusiastic — but while I was reading it, the book got right inside my head.
  • Nine Gates (Breaking the Wall, #2)
    Sequel to the one listed below. I really enjoyed the narrative voice and the integration of magic. Also, these were the last novels I read before vanishing into NaNoWriMo, and the author’s techniques were very helpful as I got started, especially the descriptions of magic in practice. Am anxious to get book #3.
  • Sea of Poppies: A Novel
    Big and sprawling; my review calls it “strangely compelling.” 🙂 I’m wondering if the complex POV work in this one subconsciously affected my writing last month.
  • Thirteen Orphans (Breaking the Wall, #1)
    Ditto to my earlier thoughts.
  • This Is Not a Game: A Novel
    Walter Jon Williams continues to be awesome. Seriously, I actually had a hard time putting this one down…a few lunches went over their usual time because I wanted to read “just one more little bit.”

Some 4-star special interest honorable mentions…

  • The Weather of the Pacific Northwest. Gorgeous and fascinating reading, and the tidbits that stuck have turned out to be useful in my day to day life. If you’re a local, definitely check it out.
  • No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days. For the writers in the crowd. Lots of good advice and encouragement, even if you’re not trying to write for NaNo.
  • Kneadlessly Simple: Fabulous, Fuss-Free, No-Knead Breads. I only managed to make one recipe out of this book before it had to go back to the library, but that one was fantastic. Took a few attempts to work out decent timing, but after that, very easy and very tasty.

One final thought: virtually all of my reading in 2009 was courtesy of the library. (I bought Dreams from My Father at the Austin airport.) If you’re in Oly, consider joining the Friends of the Olympia Library. It’s only $5! (Why yes, I am the secretary. Why do you ask? ;)) If you’re not already taking advantage of the great services of your local library, wherever it may be…well, you should.

Experiments in cookery

So I decided not to renew Cook’s Illustrated. Not that it’s not plenty of fun, but most of the recipes require a bit more of a kitchen than I’ve got, and mostly it just makes me covet more cooking stuff.

Of course, in the way of such things, the very last issue that I’m getting came in this week…and I’ve found a recipe that I really, really like: Crisp Roasted Potatoes. (Not linking…no point unless you have a subscription. 🙁 But do go to your local library and take a peek at the paper edition.) What’s not to love about a recipe that’s just potatoes, oil and salt? Potatoes are one of my favorite foods; C teases me about being the Irish potato girl. And it’s got the usual CI dash of sciencey cookery: apparently roughing up the parboiled potato surface makes for a better outer crust while keeping the inner creamy. I’ll add to that a tip to err on the side of thicker potato slices. Too thin, and they get tough.

I’m still giving the magazine up, even with that. It’ll always be there for a future subscription, and in a pinch there’s the library.

Plus there’s plenty of fun to be had with cooking without it. I’m keeping my subscription to Sunset, which has a nice balance of decorating, garden, cooking and travel. (Plus we have their big plant book from C’s mom, and I love that.) This summer I got into a really tasty Mediterranean salad…one of my best memories of the summer is sitting out at the river on one of those hot afternoons, eating salad and drinking cider. Now that it’s heading into fall, I’m not likely to make it too much longer, maybe once more while there’s still cherry tomatoes to be had at the farmer’s market.

I made yogurt twice earlier this summer: the first time it turned out amazing, the second time, when I tried making a bigger batch, it turned out awful. Haven’t tried since. I’d like to try again, but it’ll be a while.

But the most fun I’ve had with cooking over the last month or so has been in baking bread. I checked Kneadlessly Simple out from the library to see if it was any good. The only recipe I got around to making was the first one, for a basic white bread, but OMG so good. It’s been a little tricky getting the timing right with my work schedule and everything, but in a pinch I can just throw it in the fridge a few more hours. Fresh bread is a delightful and almost miraculous thing. At some point I’ll need to get a copy of that book and try some more recipes!

I should probably rename my “cook’s illustrated” category, then, but I’ll leave it as is…a place to note my various cook experiments as I get around to them.

Beef Teriyaki

The actual recipe name is Charcoal-Grilled Beef Teriyaki, but I don’t have a grill.

The good: wow, delicious! The flavor was insane, sweet & salty & savory. Ginger & orange zest added a weird little kick, even if they were a PITA to prep. I also have a hunch that once I’ve made it a few times, I’ll be able to streamline it so that it doesn’t take as long to pull together.

The bad: fussy prep; in particular, I hate grating ginger. The sauce was delicious, but didn’t quite come out to the right thickness, and there was too much of it. (I’m not too big on a lot of extra sauce for “drizzling.” Not much for soy sauce on my rice, either.) I’m thinking next time I’ll add a bit more cornstarch, start it a little sooner, and reduce the amount of liquids. (I set aside the extra sauce to use next time.) I also could have cut the meat a bit thicker; it cooked way too quickly. The slightly thicker pieces also had a more complex (?) flavor, less sauce, more beef.

The ugly: I don’t have a grill. I wasn’t sure how to cook it instead, so I went to my go-to pan: the cast iron. I’ll admit that it’s been in need of reseasoning for a while, but what the sauce did to it was INSANE. There’s a lot of sugar and wine, and basically it turns into caramel. (Cleaning the splatters on the stove wasn’t much fun either.) On the cast iron, it created this…I don’t have the words to describe it. Thick black lumpy sugary crust. I even soaked it, which I NEVER do with that pan, and which you’re not supposed to do with cast iron, and still it looks crazy. (There seems to be a lot of ideas about how to clean and/or reseason cast iron; I think I’m going to try this from Michael Ruhlman, if only because it looks easiest.)

Will I make it again? Oh, definitely. Will probably also try with chicken. But we’ll have to see about tweaking the sauce. And one of these days we’ll have a grill, and I’ll actually do that first part of the recipe name. 🙂

Update: not as good for leftovers as I’d anticipated. Too sweet or something.

Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie

Another in a long line of superlative adjectives from CI. 🙂 Although, once again, it’s not far off. It makes huge, gorgeous, delicious chocolate chip cookies, reminiscent of something you’d get on a little plate at the coffeeshop.

Slightly more time-consuming that the back-of-the-bag recipe, what with melting/browning butter and resting the batter; on the other hand, I’ve always hated having to cream the butter & sugar with even just softened butter, let alone straight out of the fridge. (O my weak wrists.)

Yes, it does call for 3 tablespoons of batter per cookie; I found that two oversized tbsps was about right. They’re huge cookies, so just one cookie with a little glass of milk hits the spot nicely. As a corollary to that, they keep pretty well, too. After a few days they’re a little crumbly around the edges, but still quite good. (Conversely, they’re AMAZING warm. I have to pace myself so as not to eat the whole damn batch.)

I’ve made these twice now, and they’re quite consistent. A big thumbs up!

Recipe link: Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies (as always, apologies for the paywall. Contact me if you want the details.)

Best Quick Tomato Sauce

Dude. Seriously. It is. Crazy trick that worked: grating the onion and sauteeing in butter. Meant absolutely no onion texture (which I hate) but a rich flavor. Crushed tomatoes rocked, and the whole thing was crazy fast. Delightful with a little bit of ground beef added in. Probably could’ve used a thicker spaghetti (we always buy angel hair) to absorb some of the liquid, but no big deal. Totally 110% recommended; I’m planning on making it again regularly!

(May/June Cook’s Illustrated, page 13)

Update: doesn’t hold up to very much meat added. A little bit after cooking, or even better, with meatballs, but it’s just too delicate of a sauce to be the base for an actual meat sauce.

Cooking w/Cooks Illus: #2 of a series

(Yeah, #2. I’m going to need to write up the French toast experiments.)

My sister (the one living in Oly, for those keeping track) bought me a subscription to Cook’s Illustrated magazine for Christmas. I now have two copies on hand, and I’ve tried two recipes. In the interest of my own record-keeping, and in case anyone’s curious, I’m going to keep track here of my experiments with their recipes.

Yesterday I made Baked Ziti. (Yes, I know: you have to be a member. They’re fussy that way. Email me if you want more details, or hit your local library.) It called for including a cream sauce, using cottage cheese in place of ricotta, cutting the mozzerella into chunks, and undercooking the pasta. Set up was reasonably simple: notably, it helps to cut up the cheese before doing any other step. I didn’t have any fresh basil, so I used up some old dried stuff. Probably not the best call, but you use what you’ve got.

Also, I need a 12-inch skillet; I had to use the cast-iron pan for the tomato sauce, and IIRC you’re really not supposed to cook tomatoes in cast iron.

The initial cooking stage took about a half hour. I was able to do a bit of in-progress cleanup while things simmered, which was nice. I had a hard time eyeballing which pan to use, and ended up having to clean up two pans — the roasting pan was too big, but I didn’t figure that out until I’d already poured in the pasta+cheese. I had to add 5 minutes to the cooking time, but that’s pretty standard for our oven.

How’d it turn out? Pretty decent, but not spectacular. Bright tomato flavor with nibs of cheese, and a hefty feel. I think the pasta was too mushy, and if I do this one again, I’ll undercook the pasta even more (?!). (The general idea is to have it mostly cook in the oven with the sauce.) It could use a little more spice, too: fresh basil if I can, more salt/pepper, and maybe even one more clove of garlic. (Shockingly, 5 cloves’ worth just disappears into the flavor of the dish.) I might add more of the tomato sauce to the cheese/pasta mixture, to get more of that flavor farther down into the dish.

It calls for 20 minutes of cooling before serving, but I think that was about 5 minutes too long, because it was starting to get cold when we ate it.

The pan I did use would’ve been easier to clean if I’d greased it; cleanup was a bit of a bear, with two rounds of soaking, although the plates cleaned up easily enough.

It made enough for us to have dinner (with salad!), plus 5 servings of leftovers. I had some for lunch today: it’s even a bit more bland on the reheat, and needs some stirring to get hot all the way through. But still: very savory, and I’ll eat anything that features globs of cheese. 🙂