Monday, January 30, 2012

Beef Taco Skillet

Somewhere along the way, I cut a short, easy looking recipe from a newspaper. I can't for the life of me remembers which one or where I might have been living when I did so. I've narrowed it down to either my grad school days or since I moved out here but that's the best I can do. This Beef Taco Skillet used tomato soup for its base and I am a big fan of using Campbells for a starter - a recipe always seems fool-proof to me then.

This recipe is definitely one of the easiest I've ever put together and it cooked up quickly and easily. But then, what I ended up I wasn't quite sure what to do with. The skillet gives you a concoction of beef and tortillas cooked with salsa and tomato soup. It isn't quite thick enough to be a stew and not thick enough to be a soup. It's somewhere in the middle. I wasn't exactly sure how to serve it. I think for the leftovers I'll make rice to go with the dish, but for tonight I made do with tortilla chips and sour cream.

I liked this dish but the taste of tomato soup sort of overwhelms it. I also think if I were to make this again I would add a dash of taco seasoning to give a better kick to it. As it is, this is a very mild, bordering on bland dish but filling. I had only a small helping myself and I'm stuffed. I also, unlike what the recipe called for, didn't put cheese over the entire finished product, only my portion of it. As it will be eaten over the week, I figured I would prefer adding fresh cheese to each serving rather than putting it all on at once.

Honestly, I have a better Mexican skillet recipe in a cookbook I prefer to this one so it's one that is not getting a permanent place in my recipe box but I'm glad I tried it out. For a busy night when you aren't sure what to make and you know you have a pound of hamburger in the freezer, I could see this becoming an easy, go-to dish.

Beef Taco Skillet

1 lb. ground beef
1 can tomato soup
1/2 cup salsa
1/2 water
4 flour tortillas (8" round, cut into 1" pieces)
1/2 cup taco blend shredded cheese


1) Brown beef in 10" skillet until well-browned; drain fat
2) Stir in soup, salsa, water and tortillas.
3) Heat to a boil, reduce heat to low and cook for 5 minutes
4) Stir and serve; top each serving with cheese.

Makes 4 servings

Friday, January 27, 2012

Neverland Calls


This may sound odd but I had to grown into liking Peter Pan. Like Alice in Wonderland for me, it was just not one I understood when I was a kid. Why wouldn't you want to grow up? Of course, it's only once you're grown up that you understand how utterly awful it is to be grown up. Peter Pan knows what's up. So, it's only over the last few years that I've really come to appreciate the Peter Pan myth. I finally read the original story, got hooked on the Peter and the Starcatchers series (which is now a play coming to Broadway that I'll miss...bother) and re-watched Hook after all these years and understood that as a kid, I didn't get half the jokes! So, how I made it until now without seeing Finding Neverland, especially when it has some of my favorite actors and actresses, is puzzling.

The film tells the story of how J.M. Barrie, on the heels of a giant flop of a play, is inspired to write one of the most beloved children's stories of all time. Barrie, played quite endearing by Johnny Depp, meets a widow and her four children in the park one day, a family which is badly in need of some imagination since the loss of their husband and father. Barrie, in an unhappy marriage, brings laughter and fun into their lives forever changing them and him. It's an unconventional relationship that society predictably condemned them for but results in a play about the possibilities of childhood and the power of the imagination.

I really enjoyed this film. The acting was wonderful from both Depp and Kate Winslet who plays the widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and I had forgotten how talented Freddie Highmore is. His portrayal of Peter Pan's namesake steals the film in my opinion. The kid even brought tears to my eyes and there were no animals in peril anywhere - impressive indeed! I can usually care less about humans dying in films (animals though? I am a blubbering mess).

Of course with a film like this I spend a lot of time rolling my eyes and thinking, "Sure, I bet that's exactly how that happened. Yeah right." And I did do that a little at first with this film until the first, what I suppose would be best called, magical realist scene where Barrie dances with his dog in the park which he is pretending is a bear at the time. The scene then alternates between the real scene and a magical scene where Barrie is dressed as a ringmaster of a circus who actually is dancing with a bear. These surreal scenes, sprinkled throughout the film, broke the pretend/real barrier and convinced me that keeping to the facts which inspired the film was not the primary goal of the story. Once the filmmakers got that across to me, I was willing to not wonder so much about the facts.

It is those scenes of pretend, scenes that exist only in the minds of the characters themselves, that are the most fun in the film. However, my favorite scenes of the film were those of Peter Pan's opening night. Between the audience, the actors, and the set design, it was really a wonderful sequence of the story. Watch the film for these scenes at least - the illustration of what kids know that grown-ups have forgotten was quite brilliantly presented and reminds you that Peter Pan is not simply a story for children - it has something fundamentally important to teach adults as well.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Excellent Women - So They Say

I was prepared to adore Barbara Pym's Excellent Women. It came highly recommended for Jane Austen fans. So, and I'm sorry to say that this is going to sound irrational, I was really quite mad at the book when I didn't much care for it. It made me laugh a few times but for the most part I kept reading it hoping something would eventually happen and wondering if I would even care when it did.
From Goodreads

Excellent Women is told from the point of view of Mildred Lathbury, a spinster (read a 30-something single woman - horrors!) living in post-World War II London who is very involved with her local parish. Her life is quiet and uncomplicated until a young couple moves into the apartment below hers and the vicar gets himself engaged to a new widow living in the apartment above the vicarage. Cue misunderstandings and what I think was supposed to be a sort of dignified madcap comedy of manners. Which you think should have been awesome but was...well...dull.

Now, I mentioned I was mad at this book so I've thought a lot about why since I finished it last week. On paper, the plot is gold really - it should have worked and I should have loved every word of it. I've decided a few key issues worked against it in the end.  One, the characters are just unlikable - even the likable ones. This could be the result of the first person narrative in that you don't get to know some of the key characters all that well because Mildred just doesn't know them well enough to let the reader get any insight into them. However, I think they were just not well written - they all fall flat on the page for me. Two, the ending. Full stop. I may have tossed the book across the room after I finished it (or I would have if it hadn't been a library book). I don't care how typical this sort of ending was for the time period, there is a reason Lizzy doesn't end up with Mr. Collins. And while Mildred is no Lizzy, she didn't deserve who she ended up with in my opinion.

I also think this book may have hit a little too close to home with the character of Mildred and so her ending was quite disheartening. The book spends a lot of time harping on Mildred's spinsterhood when my impression of Mildred is that she is happy as a single woman and the book's sole goal seemed to be to make her ashamed of that fact. Every once in a while, you catch Mildred out though - she doesn't want to move into the new apartment above the vicarage, she's happy where she is, on her own. Later, she is against the vicar's sister moving in with her. She's someone who has come to enjoy her solitude on many levels. She is, in essence, someone who has made a fulfilling life for herself without a man involved.

When the vicar becomes engaged, everyone in the parish is worried about how Mildred will take the news. What I loved was Mildred herself was confused - was she supposed to be upset about it in some way? Apparently, as a single woman of a certain age, the parish had always assumed that Mildred would get married to the vicar eventually. Mildred didn't get that memo and relunctantly takes on the rejected woman role because it's expected of her. It's at that moment I realized that Mildred is delightful but her silly author was determined to get her attached to someone by the end of the book because that was apparently how the book HAD to end. And man, was I mad when I read the ending Pym gave to Mildred. OK, I get it, you were bound and determined to marry the poor spinster off but you couldn't have written a better man for her? Come on, Anne Elliot got Captain Wentworth in the end people! And Mildred was definitely more Anne than Charlotte Lucas yet she got the equivalent of Mr. Collins handed to her. I have decided Midred rebelled at the last minute and returned to her life of church teas and working with impoverished gentlewomen rather than marry the drip Pym saddled her with in the end.

On an odd note, I think I would have liked, and accepted better, this story if I had watched it rather than read it. As a play or as a film with a decent screenplay and the right cast to add some life to these characters, I think this would be a lot more fun - sort of a 1940s era romantic comedy. Someone should get to work on that ASAP.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Chicken Cacciatore

So, I'm not big on New Years' resolutions but I do like to set some goals for myself that are usually reading orientated with a new year. Since I wasn't able to come up with concrete ones in reading (I have a few vague ideas but I'm still working on them), I decided maybe I should branch out and challenge myself elsewhere. The kitchen seemed an obvious place for me to go.

The running family gag is that I can't cook. I did have some unfortunate misadventures when I was younger and for awhile there it was just easier to be on kitchen duty than attempt to make a dish of some sort. Then of course I left the comfort of college dining halls and had to fend for myself. So, I learned to cook in a sense. I rarely make something that isn't edible so I always assumed that was a step in the right direction for me. The idea of cooking is so charming though that I became a recipe collector with more cooking blogs than I could keep up with. Over the years, I've learned my talent level better and said goodbye to some of the blogs that just made me hungry while producing gourmet worthy meals that I had no inclination or reason to make. However, the recipe collecting has continued until I think, it may, just be a little out of hand. I have an email folder full along with clippings, print outs and magazine articles overflowing my recipe binder and box. My problem with that is...I've made maybe a handful of the recipes I have. So, goal for the year? Make them and decide whether they are keepers or whether I'm never making them again.

I generally make my most complicated meal on Sundays; just the day of the week I have the most time to devote to chopping, cooking, baking, dishes and clean up of the kitchen. It has the bonus that anything I make tends to make me enough leftovers that I don't need to do more than reheat until Thursday - one of the bonuses to being single and recipes almost always assuming you're cooking for a family of four. So today I finally got around to starting on this goal. I've been set back a few times as grocery shopping where I currently live can be challenging to find what you need sometimes. Other times, I improvise.

My first dish of the year? Chicken Cacciatore from Bread and Putter with a few changes due to grocery availability. Overall, I loved this dish - it tasted delicious and was super easy to make. It also didn't require hours of chopping things which is always good in my book. I recommend this dish actually for the weeknight. You could get everything chopped beforehand, get it cooking in the skillet and then you have 40 minutes to get things done before it's ready which I like on a weeknight - makes me get some chores done before I settle in for a night of reading and/or TV watching.

The final product!

Ingredients: 1 lb. chicken (thighs or breasts I think work fine), 2 medium green bell peppers, 1 package (6 or 8 oz.) button mushrooms and 1 jar of marinara sauce

1) Coat large, deep skillet with cooking spray
2) Chop chicken into cubes and then brown on skillet
3) Add chopped peppers and mushrooms; cook 2-3 minutes on skillet
4) Pour in marinara sauce, cover and let simmer for 40 minutes until chicken is tender

I served the dish with spaghetti but I think it would be just as good over rice.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

My Name is Asher Lev

From Goodreads

I have never heard of this book until a colleague mentioned it to me. It's a book that is often read by college freshmen. Since I missed that cue, I decided to read it to see what I missed. It makes sense to hand this to college freshmen though, the book explores parent-child relationships, the pain and fear of leaving home and learning that maybe your parents' way of life isn't going to work for you exactly.

Asher Lev is growing up in Brooklyn as an Hasidic Jew. His father is an important member of the synagogue who travels extensively for the Rebbe and his mother seems content to wait at the window for him to come home. Asher's art though gets him through even as it causes many of his family's problems over the years. His father does not understand his art and seems to see it as an affliction sent by God to try him. His mother spends their lives trying to be a bridge between the father and son, usually failing which leads to Asher's masterpiece, Brooklyn Crucifixion.

I liked this book a lot and appreciated what it was trying to accomplish. I can't say I much cared for any of the characters but that's because I feel like I didn't get to know them very well. So much of them is never explained, even Asher who is telling you the story. I also found them hard to relate to because honestly, I never had these sorts of problems. Asher's story of growing up was completely foreign to me, even when generalizing it.

I loved the art aspects to the story though. I always wanted to have the sort of talent Asher is born with - his eye is supposedly spectacular when it comes to painting. I did like the author's choice in not giving many details about his work until the last masterpiece which is the final crisis in Asher's life with his parents. I learned early to appreciate art since I couldn't seem to create it. Asher's story is about the joy and pain in being able to create and what it does to his very traditional, very religious family.

This was the part of the story that I just couldn't seem to care much about - the religious aspect. I don't come from a religious family and though my friends were always willing to share their religions with me, which was fun to explore lots of different religions, I was always vaguely uncomfortable with religion in general. Watching how much Asher struggles with it, I again realized I don't feel a sense of loss for not having that growing up. Religion always seems to complicate things, make you question what you feel is right for you. It can also have the opposite effect but Asher's story just seems to show the pain of having that tradition weighing on you as you try to grow into the person you need to be.

Lastly, and where it seemed to be a good book for college freshmen, was the parent-child relationship explored with Asher and his parents. Asher is a disappointment to his father, a strict traditionalist who doesn't comprehend his son's artistic talents. His mother is caught between two needy men in her life who expect her to choose their side. Again, I could understand these issues but I've never experienced them; in fact, this book made me want to call up my parents and thank them. They always let me be exactly who I was, even when they weren't sure where I came from. My whole family did. They sat through chorus concerts and high school musicals and tried to act interested when they asked what I was reading. I always appreciated that even if I didn't say it. This book make me grateful that they always asked even more.

Overall, I liked this book; it made me think even if it was kind of a depressing book on many levels but it made me dive into all my art museum books this past week so it's been lovely to have an excuse to revisit them.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Why wasn't I this cool as an 11 year old?

From Goodreads

I love a good, precocious, brilliant, pint sized heroine. R. L. LaFevers' Theodosia was my reigning favorite but Flavia de Luce is now a tie. In fact, I think it is a good thing these two lived decades apart  - I'm not sure the fictional world would survive if they ever joined forces.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie introduces readers to Flavia de Luce, the youngest daughter of an old English family growing up in a crumbling old estate in the 1950s. She has two older sisters, one obsessed with her looks, the other with her books. Her father is shell shocked from the disappearance and death of the girls' mother and his experience in the war, so Flavia entertains herself with her chemicals. She inherited a chemistry lab in her great house from a long dead relative. Her passion lies with poisons and her encyclopedic knowledge of them is at once brilliant and scary at the same time. Flavia though is mostly bored and lonely. Luckily for her, a dead body shows up in her cucumber patch the day after a dead jack snipe with a rare stamp impaled on its beak shows up on her back stoop and sends her on a thrilling adventure.

The book is told from Flavia's point of view and the author impressed me by creating an character who is brilliant and yet believable as an eleven year old. She knows her poisons but she's a typical youngest sister who has trouble relating with her older sisters and yet loves them. She also clearly loves her father, she after all tries to confess to a murder she didn't do to try to protect him, but has no way to relate to him. She still has a lot to learn about people which, as a kid, she should.

I am looking forward to the rest of the series definitely and recommend it if you're looking for a good mystery and a plucky heroine to start off your new year.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The King's Speech


Dramas aren't usually the sort of movie I gravitate towards - I like to laugh too much. However, I am an anglophile if nothing else and so The King's Speech has been on my to-watch list for awhile. I actually won a copy of it in a silent auction late last year but it got pushed out of the viewing rotation by Netflix and holiday movies. But, it was time to watch it finally and happily I had shortbread and chocolate in the apartment from Christmas gifts which seemed like, along with a cup of tea, the best snacks for a proper British film.

Now, what I am a sucker for is an inspiring story. Normally, these tend to be sports-focused but The King's Speech is a fabulously inspiring story of a reluctant monarch with a stutter. I knew little about the story of George VI and his struggle with his speech - I knew less about his brother Edward and Wallis Simpson as I always found the story almost disgustingly romantic (odd for me right?). I am glad I never liked the story actually because after reading up on the history, they really weren't all that nice it seems.

Anyway, the film follows the struggles of Albert trying to overcome his stutter to fulfill his public duties as a prince and later as George VI after his brother's abdication. I loved seeing Albert's relationship with his wife, Elizabeth, played delightfully by Helena Bonham Carter. I also liked seeing the glimpses of his relationship with his daughters. As the film explores, Albert didn't have a happy childhood, overshadowed by his older brother and Crown Prince, so to see that he makes an effort to be a good father and involved in his daughter's lives was kind of adorable. It helps that Albert is played by Colin Firth who, quite rightly, won an Oscar for his performance of Albert/George. In this final scene of the film when George delivers his first wartime speech, you want to stand up and cheer him on. Luckily for George, he does have his own personal cheerleader, his unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue played delightfully by Geoffrey Rush. The scenes in which Logue and Prince Albert do his many speech exercises are laugh out loud funny - I especially enjoyed the use of swear words in his speech therapy. It was a great way to lessen tension in some of the most fraught moments of the film.

I also loved the photography and set design of the film. I'm not one to notice things like this normally but I felt like the film just presented an atmosphere that was perfect for its story. Somewhat gloomy yet mellow, The lighting was often dim, the sets earth tones even when in the palaces of England. I liked the somber, close feeling that gave the viewer - as if I was a part of the family shown rather than watching the royals put on their game face for the world.

A witty drama with a great atmosphere - I think it's a great mid-winter film to check out!