In which I hope May is better than April

Last month was pretty rough for a number of reasons. May so far is so-so. My body continues to hate me with a passion so the fun burning in my chest from what they say is an esophageal ulcer followed me into this month. But, there is travel and fun and vacation on the horizon so we’ll keep moving forward in the hopes of better days.

I am at least adoring my new apartment. It has a brand new kitchen with appliances so new I often don’t work my oven right because it doesn’t have a simple dial to turn like every other one I’ve ever had. I am enjoying having carpet back too. No more acres of tile to scrub constantly in an attempt to keep it clean. I am looking forward to getting my balcony screened in so once it is slightly cooler than the surface of the sun outside, I will have a lovely bug free place to eat and read. I am already hunting for a comfy reading chair for it. It’s been nice to want to spend money to make home more comfortable for sure.

My reading this year has been sporadic; I am so far off my year reading goals at this point, I am just going with the flow for the moment. The disorganized reading though is throwing me off. Figures my leisure reading not being structured would be a point of contention for me. I’ve enjoyed running a book club this spring and it’s introduced me to books I never would have read before so that’s been a nice change of pace for sure. Look for an upcoming drive by book review post!

Reading since January

I have been reading. I promise. Lately I’ve been feeling the need for historical romances as chasers for some heavier fiction. Being part of a book club has changed my reading habits more than I expected so I’m still adjusting to the fact I have this one book each month that is not of my choosing. I’m enjoying them; they just aren’t often quick reads. They need to be read slowly and thought over, mulled if you will, so I have something to say about them when I sit down to informally lead a discussion on it. So, let’s take a look at what I’ve been reading since I started the year with Austen. [You will note none of these go towards my reading goals really…I need to re-group on that set of goals one of these days…]

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Cocaine Blues (Phryne Fisher #1): I discovered Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on Netflix late last year and it was the best find ever. I was happy to discover they were books first and my delightful friend got me the first one for Christmas. While the book was lovely, I am going to say something that pains me a bit…I like the TV series version better. I know! For shame! But the series does a few things with what is a solid story base and the makings of a fabulous characters that make it that much better. 1) It cast perfectly – seriously, the TV series was almost too perfect in picking actors to enhance the makings of the characters in the book. And it edited them well too – taking some roles out and attributing them to other more prominent characters. It could also be over the course of the book series this happens as well but the TV series hits you with them 10 minutes in. 2) It takes everything on page and fleshes it out more. Which is odd because you usually have the opposite problem with film adaptations but this is a relatively short book with some odd choices in it. The series edited it perfectly; adding where needed, removing some of the odder choices. It’s one downfall might be it made all the “hero” characters a lot more likable than they come across in the book sometimes. I will be interested to keep reading to see how they continue to compare but for the moment, the TV version is winning this series.

As Old as Time (Twisted Tales #3): ** spoiler alert ** I am enjoying the Twisted Tales series from Disney. I missed the second one somehow but they are really stand alone stories, just in the same vein of storytelling. Besides, Beauty and the Beast is a personal favorite so clearly this was a must read for me. This particular retelling played well with the original story, having that pivotal moment again where the book begins to deviate from the movie we all know so well. In this tale, it is the moment of Belle and the rose in the West Wing. In the movie, she is stopped before she can touch it; here, not so much and so sets off the adventure. I liked this version of Belle; she is the one you recognize but also a bit like you would probably be in her shoes. The talking furniture freaks her out, she calls herself out when acting too much like a gothic heroine and is, quite rightly, not perfect. She sticks her foot in her mouth with the Beast as often as he loses his temper. I also liked that this story focuses as much on Belle and the Beast as it does on Belle’s mother and father. For the first part, the two stories are actually told in parallel and well the changes are sometimes clumsily wrought (the forgetting spell is convenient but doesn’t play out 100% well and Gaston is…well…not the villain here so I can forgive the changes there but they are kind of just weird in the end.) Overall, I liked this re-telling of B&B and I liked that it left the door open for more adventures of Belle and the Beast as they head off to find more of the displaced magical creatures.

The Complete Stories: I picked this up when I was in Savannah last fall at one of the most swoon-worthy bookstores I’ve found in a while in my travels. Flannery O’Connor is one of those 20th century authors I actually rather enjoy. I remember thanking heaven for Wise Blood in my contemporary American lit class as it was one book I enjoyed out of many I loathed. However, it took me awhile to get through this collection. Her stories are lovely but can be a lot in one sitting. I needed to pace myself to enjoy her language and quirky plot twists. These are never fun to read; it is language you read O’Connor for and that particular brand of Southern Gothic no one does better.

Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World: [I read an uncorrected proof via Edelweiss so some issues I had with this one are probably fixed in the published copy.] I both liked this and found it extremely annoying at the same time. I think a lot of it had to do with the formatting and I hope once this is actually published there will be better indicators to the readers when Stevens is switching between her narrative, one of her short stories, and the unfinished novel she’s working on because I spent a lot of pages figuring out which one was which a lot when reading. That said, I liked the disjointedness of the narrative (which surprised me), I just want a better marker for when the narrative is switching up. The author herself can grate a bit. She’s very much what you think of when you think “twenty-something rather insecure MFA graduate working on first novel.” But she is incredibly honest (or seems to be) and I cannot but applaud that sort of raw honesty about one’s self. She can be annoying, whiny, and unlikable and she doesn’t sugarcoat that. She also isn’t hiding her failure here and I liked that best of all. She is very clearly writing an entire book about this really weird and rather foolish idea she actually acted on and then failed at pretty spectacularly. I think she is strongest when it’s her narrative; I found the fiction she includes of that sort of pretentious overly sexual blather that MFA programs are churning out by the literary review full and I find utterly ridiculous and boring most of the time (because do you know the people in those stories? I don’t and I don’t want to either). I read this for the premise; the idea of a writer going off to live in the middle of nowhere and Nell Stevens delivered beautifully for that part of the story.

The Never-Open Desert Diner: I liked this novel but I’m not entirely sure I could tell you why. I liked the characters; as weird and rather unlikable as they could be. I liked their quirkiness. I loved the setting of the book. The desert is as much a character as its human counterparts and it made me want to go explore middle of nowhere Utah someday. The plot…is odd. About halfway through the book, the plot becomes even weirder than the characters involved and I’m not sure I really buy it in the end but I also don’t think the reader gets the full story so there are still a lot of blanks when you read the last page. It fits the story though so didn’t bother me as much as it normally would.

The Underground Railroad: This is as good as everyone is saying. You need to read it. Heartbreaking and yet inspiring to read. Cora is a character with a story who stays with you long after you finish the last page. I have nothing more to add, just go read it ASAP.

Orphan Train: I really enjoyed this read; I particularly liked the structure which is odd because often in a split narrative like this I prefer one storyline over the other but I liked both stories equally here and thought they complimented each other incredibly well. Both Vivian and Molly are strong, relatable heroines that you root for throughout the book. I also liked learning more about this odd little episode in American history and its after-effects on the generations that followed the orphan trains in the American midwest.

I have a stack on the bedside table at the moment (of course). I am about halfway through The Oracle of Stamboul and have Maud’s Line and Lab Girl on deck then it’s back to working on the books in the to-read pile before then getting back to my reading goals for the year…oy. I need more time to just read!

Working on a Re-Boot

So, to say I got off to a lazy start for 2017 is somewhat of an understatement. I have fallen off the wagon across the board (with eating right, working out, reading, staying organized, you name it). However, an upcoming move is forcing me to at least get myself organized. Getting myself back onto a workout schedule is proving more difficult but two upcoming 5Ks will mean at least have something to hold me accountable. Eating right is hit or miss at the moment and I was hoping for good things this weekend because I was finally going to try out my new spiralizer. Bonus, the recipe was delicious. Not so cool is it only made two servings and it was a lot of work for those two servings.

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See? Veggie City and so good just…not enough for the week.

Once I figured out how the spiralizer worked (and only destroyed a half of a zucchini to get there), it was a lot of fun but not particularly easy to get even enough for two portions. Another downfall for this was the amount of dishes generated and major con, the spiralizer and its various parts are not dishwasher friendly. And I really loathe washing dishes by hand.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, these portions are huge and filling but now I’m stuck trying to figure out dinner for the rest of the week. If a recipe can’t get me to at least Thursday, it’s not doing it’s job in my opinion (and usually means my eating habits go off the rails for the rest of the week because I never feel like cooking after work). So, fix for the future: make a double batch of this next time. Because it IS delish! So many tasty vegetables and I think I mentioned the portion is huge and so filling. I didn’t feel hungry five seconds after eating (which has been happening a lot lately with recipes I’ve been trying). It may not look like anything but a mess but I recommend this. I am a fan of the zucchini noodles; now just to figure out how to make enough to last a week.

Z’paghetti Primavera [Clever name; it’s one of HG’s recipes]

Prep: 15 minutes [I don’t know what planet they are from; there is a lot of chopping involved with this one; I was at least 45 minutes in prep and that is not including figuring out how to use my spiralizer…]

Makes 2 servings

Ingredients:
1 lb. zucchini
3/4 cup thinly sliced onion (1 medium sized yellow onion)
3/4 cup thinly sliced bell pepper (1 large; I used green but yellow might be good here for some color contrasts in the final product)
3/4 cup sliced mushrooms
3/4 cup chopped broccoli
3/4 cup cherry tomatoes, halved (I quartered grape tomatoes)
2 tsp. olive oil
2 tsp. chopped garlic
1/2 tsp. onion powder
1/4 tsp. each salt and black pepper
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Directions:

  1. Using a spiral vegetable slicer, cut zucchini into spaghetti-like noodles.
  2. Bring an extra-large skillet sprayed with nonstick spray to medium-high heat. Cook and stir zucchini until hot and slightly softened, about 3 minutes.
  3. Transfer zucchini to a strainer, and thoroughly drain excess liquid.
  4. Remove skillet from heat. Re-spray, and bring to medium heat. Add onion, bell pepper, mushrooms, broccoli, and 1/4 cup water. Cover and cook for 4 minutes, or until veggies are tender and water has evaporated.
  5. Add drained zucchini and all remaining ingredients except Parm. Cook and stir until entire dish is hot and garlic is fragrant, about 2 minutes.
  6. Stir in 2 tbsp. Parmesan cheese. Serve topped with remaining 2 tbsp. cheese.

BBQ Chicken without a Grill

I am still grill-less. I even still have the money my parents gave me to buy one. My backyard is apparently the host of a constant mosquito convention so I do not spend any time out on my patio so getting a grill was never really a viable option. Fingers crossed for the next place maybe. In any case, sometimes you just really want some tasty BBQ chicken. So, when I had a recent craving for it, I turned to my go-to site for recipes. Hungry Girl did not let me down. This was tasty and quite filling with lots of tasty BBQ goodness. I also love a good foil packet recipe and a recipe that is a single serving all on its own.

Ingredients
1 medium zucchini, chopped
1 small-medium yellow onion, chopped
5 ounces raw boneless skinless chicken breast, pounded a bit to thin it out
Dash each salt and black pepper
2 tablespoons BBQ sauce with 45 calories or less per 2-tablespoon serving (I used the Publix Original)

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lay a large piece of heavy-duty foil on a baking sheet, and spray with nonstick spray.
  2. Place veggies on the center of the foil. Top with chicken, and sprinkle with seasonings. Drizzle with sauce.
  3. Cover with another large piece of foil. Fold together and seal all four edges of the foil pieces, forming a well-sealed packet.
  4. Bake for 25 minutes, or until chicken is cooked through and veggies have softened.
  5. Cut packet to release steam before opening entirely.

A new spaghetti sauce

Some weeks just require something quick, easy and tasty. Those are generally the weeks I make spaghetti. I am always hunting for new sauces to try; ones from scratch and ones, like the one I’m about to share, that use a jarred sauce as its base. This trial, two weeks ago now, was good but I actually think I would leave out the meat next time (shocker for me; I do love meat) and add in more vegetables. I’m thinking some mushrooms and fresh tomatoes would make this sing. I’ll let you know how it goes next time I try it!

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Added bonus: big portions!

Spaghetti with Vegetable and Meat Sauce
Originally from Budget Bytes

Ingredients

1 Tbsp olive oil
½ lb. lean ground beef (I used ground sirloin as that was the leanest I could find)
1 yellow onion
2 cloves garlic
1 zucchini (about ½ lb.)
2 carrots
½ tsp basil
½ tsp oregano
¼ tsp salt
Freshly cracked pepper
Pinch red pepper flakes (optional – I was out but I think this would make the sauce zing a bit more so I’ll try it next time!)
24 oz. jar pasta sauce (I used Prego Classic)
12 oz. whole wheat thin spaghetti

Directions

  1. Add the olive oil and ground beef to a large skillet. Brown the ground sirloin over medium heat until cooked through.
  2. While the beef is browning, finely dice the onion and mince the garlic. Once the beef has cooked through, add the onion and garlic to the skillet and continue to sauté until the onion is soft and transparent.
  3. While the onion and garlic are sautéing, shred the zucchini and carrots using a large-holed cheese grater [Note: I like my spaghetti sauce chunky so I diced these rather than shred.]. You should have about 1 to 1 1/2 cups of each once prepared.
  4. Add the zucchini and carrots to the skillet along with the basil, oregano, some freshly cracked pepper, salt, and a pinch of red pepper. Continue to sauté until the vegetables are tender (about 7-10 minutes).
  5. Add the pasta sauce and heat through. Cook the spaghetti according to the package directions, then drain. Return the drained spaghetti to the pot with the heat turned off. Add one cup of the prepared sauce to the pasta and stir to coat. Divide the pasta into serving bowls and top with additional sauce. [Note: I missed this final instruction and so added the whole jar to the mixture and then heated through. I’m not sure if there is a big difference but I did find that much sauce in the mixture made it a trifle runny so I would divide it out next time to see if that would help.]

If I Can’t Love Her

I am going down the Disney Broadway rabbit hole today after seeing Newsies in the movie theater last night. It makes me wonder why we don’t record and show musicals in theaters more often like that. Not all of us can make it to NYC. Heck, not all of us live in a city where traveling productions even come. They do, sort of, come here but there is no good place for them to perform. My nearest places are Tampa, Orlando and Atlanta for national tours of Broadway shows. So, when they come to my local movie theater or are something I can rent on line, I just start spending money like it’s going out of style.

But, I digress. I started this post to share with you all THE song I think of when I think Disney and Broadway. I first saw Beauty and the Beast performed on stage in Toronto on a surprise trip that Mom and Dad ended up having to tell us about because my sister refused to get in the car until they told her where we going (which pretty much sums up my sister as a kid). I was already a musical theater nerd by this point but I remember, to this day, the closing song of the first act of that exact show. I can still watch this song performed in my mind. How the stage moved, how the Beast acted and that song. That song is what you call a showstopper. It’s the sort of song that when performed well brings you both to your feet and to tears. I think I sat stunned after the curtain closed on the Beast standing over the rose but my dad jumped to his feet to head to the lobby and bought the recording of the show on the spot. It’s that kind of song.

I have since been lucky enough to see this show performed live many times but I still remember this first time I heard this song the best. So, for your Friday enjoyment, I give you “If I Can’t Love Her.”

Comfort Food

I am on a comfort food streak. It’s coinciding nicely with a cold and stormy spell we’re enjoying at the moment so I’m content to ride it out. It is also a symptom of what Publix has had on sale and what recipes are next on my list to try. So, overall it’s a win-win.

Up on the docket this week was Sage Chicken and Potatoes. This recipe was easy, quick, and involved only one pan to cook it in so less dishes! YAY! The sage and Worchester sauce gives the gravy a nice little kick so it’s not just a standard meat and potatoes dish. I also had it a few nights with sweet corn as a side. I think also in the future I would toss some roughly chopped onions in with the potatoes and carrots to give it a bit more..something. I also just love onions and will put them in pretty much anything.

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Originally from the Betty Crocker Win at Weight Loss Cookbook

Sage Chicken and Potatoes
Makes 4 servings (310 calories/serving)

Ingredients
4 boneless skinless chicken breasts (about 1 lb)
3 medium unpeeled russet potatoes, cut into 3/4-inch pieces (3 cups)
1 1/2 cups baby-cut carrots
1 jar (12 oz.) home-style chicken gravy
2 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp dried sage leaves
1/2 tsp garlic-pepper seasoning

Directions

  1. Heat oven to 400F. Spray 13×9-inch (3-quart) glass baking dish with cooking spray. Arrange chicken, potatoes and carrots in baking dish.
  2. In small bowl, mix gravy, Worcestershire sauce, sage and garlic-pepper seasoning; pour over chicken and vegetables.
  3. Spray sheet of foil with cooking spray. Cover baking dish with foil, sprayed side down.
  4. Bake 50 to 60 minutes or until vegetables are tender and juice of chicken is no longer pink when centers of thickest pieces are cut.