Thursday, 2 August 2012

A brief hiatus

Unfortunately, this blog has been on postponement for July and will be for August until after my masters dissertation. Then I promise to deliver endless reviews and a large backlog of recipes that have been helping me get through it. Promise that the wait will be worth it.

Until September, Readers.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes and Quick, Cheating Chicken Noodle Soup

The Review: 

Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes was one of those small books that packs a whollop of a kick. Barnes knows how to get to the center of issues like love, marriage, sex, death, and memory without losing you in philosophical ramblings or long-winded plot detail. The book is beautiful for its simplicity, yet Barnes sets up an excellent mystery within its pages. I really couldn't get enough of it.

At first though, I admit I almost quit it. The opening paragraph is gripping, but it is then followed for about twenty or so pages of Tony Webster as wholly young, arrogant, adolescent British male voice, occurring in an all boys private school. In other words, though it was only an introduction, I had a complete lack of ability to relate to this teenage boy (one which Barnes made terribly stereotypical on purpose). But I kept on reading for that ever-promising voice of the opening paragraph, a voice definitely distinct and more three-dimensional. And I most certainty was rewarded.

Quickly after his introduction, Tony describes some specific years in university and the scenes are vibrant and vivid. The beginning the of book surrounds his school relationships with 3 other boys, but most specifically with a genius-like philosopher, Adrian Finn. His university years surround an enigmatic girlfriend, Veronica and his fading friendships. Already some hints and leaks of the elder voice - a voice that really captures thoughts into expressions so heartfelt that I wanted to read through those passages over and over - begins here. I was already getting the feeling that each memory was chosen specifically. The mystery imperceptibly began.

But when the first major event comes, it does not come as a surprise. The event is a suicide. I will not tell you which character (as I do hope you read this novel), but you have been prepared for the scenario. Interestingly, the suicide is not the stationary center of the book - it is not the peak. No, instead it is a passing moment that resurfaces over and over again, each time with a new meaning, a new understanding, until finally the truth falls into place. It is a moving center, it is an integral event, a highly relevant moment, but time moves forward constantly. And isn't that how most death is integrated into our lives? It resurfaces again and again, but there is no stopping time's momentum.

The novel portrays this specifically in that following the suicide, Tony summarizes the rest of his adult life from settling down to middle age to retirement in the space of two pages. Tony's life actually flies by with an odd listing of facts over moments. Time speeds up and suddenly his older voice brings us to the present - a quiet, solitary life. That is when things become really interesting.

It all begins with a letter. How can we ever forget the importance of letter in literature? It is a letter discussing a will. A nearly forgotten character in his life, Veronica's mother (Veronica was the enigmatic ex-girlfriend), leaves him a diary. But why her mother? And why not just any diary, but the diary of the suicide? From that catalyst comes not only a twining and twisting mystery, but more importantly an overarching discussion of the nature of memory and human relationships. The mystery is really an unveiling, a revelation of the other parts of the story, which as individuals we are rarely aware of.

This is what I really loved about The Sense of an Ending. This is where Barnes's brilliance really shows, because he manages to give you an entire philosophy, but tucks the thoughts in little scraps of paragraphs throughout the stream of consciousness and plot.  It is as if he gives you bits of poetry, disguised as prose, hiding in the mind of a single character, but with the voice of wider humanity.

It is for these small sparks among all the mistakes of memory, misunderstanding of communication, and ignorance of meaning from Tony's character that makes him so human. He is average and safe. He is fallible and heartbreaking. He is unremarkable, except for his moments of clarity. If you read this book for nothing else, read it for the thoughts tucked away in its pages. They stay with you long after the mystery of the novel is uncovered.

And now to the recipe!

Quick and Cheating Chicken Noodle Soup

When you're actually too ill to function - like I was not too long ago - and you desperately need some chicken soup to feel like you're being taken care of by your mother, you don't want to have to cook and soak chicken bones to make real chicken broth. No, when you're really truly and sick, you usually just want it from a can. But the canned soup isn't as good or or healthy or delicious - it just isn't. So here's a quick fix for a home-made delicious cheat that will have you feeling good and also not collapsing while attempting to make it.

Serves: 1 (...for several meals)
Cooking Time: 30 minutes

1/2 a packet of fresh egg noodles
2 diced chicken breasts
3 chicken small stock pots (concentrated)
1 cup of peas
2 carrots
1 lemon
ground black pepper
mixed Italian herbs (oregano, rosemary, thyme)
Saltines (amendable)

1. Peel, cut, and steam your carrots.
2. Season the chicken. A little salt, a little pepper, and just a little of those Italian herbs. Don't go crazy, think 'sprinkle like fairy dust'. Place 1 tbsp of olive oil in the pan and just that chicken cooking.
3. Wait (and flip the chicken).
4. When the chicken is nearly done, boil some water from the kettle and boil your peas. They are lightning quick and when they are all floating, they are usually done. Drain and set aside.
5. Get a large pot, boil enough water to fill it from the kettle, pour it in there. Put the heat on a medium, you want it hot, but not spilling-over-the-sides-boiling. Add your chicken stock pots. Make sure that they dissolve completely and stir to make sure they do. Now you have instant (and tasty) chicken broth.
6. Add the noodles to the finishing chicken and mix them in the pan until they are warm and ready to eat.
7. Add your finished carrots, peas, chicken and noodles to the big pot. Stir them altogether. Squeeze out your lemon over the broth and add a sprinkle of mixed herbs and black pepper. Let everything mix (stirring recommended) for 1-2 minutes. Put some saltines on a plate, while you stir/wait.
8. Pour out your soup, grab your tissues, and enjoy in bed.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Divergent by Veronica Roth & Rosemary Garlic Vinegar Chicken

Dear Reader, 
(yes, each time I write that address I do think of Jane Eyre and smile, love that book in so many ways) 

Happy June! It's a new month, and one of my favorites as it includes my birthday. To celebrate the 1st and other small freedoms, here is my first post. We begin light, but intriguing, featuring Veronica Roth's Divergent alongside a dish with too much flavor for Abnegation and too little grease for Dauntless, but perhaps just right for a Divergent: Rosemary Garlic Vinegar Chicken.  


I came across Divergent a year ago when I was sitting in my final creative writing class. We were all talking about the brilliance of Veronica Roth's move. She had been in our course, writing one type of fiction for submission, and Divergent secretly on the side. On the charts and published a year out of undergrad? That was every single person's dream in that room, really. 

But I didn't read Divergent immediately. It took a spur from my breathtaking-adrenaline-rush through The Hunger Games (don't get me started - or do) to start craving dystopian YA. My book cravings go in cycles. If you are a book-nerd like myself, you know what I mean; you get something really good, you want seconds. And thirds. And anything else you can immediately consume. 

Divergent starts off following sixteen-year-old Tris (Beatrice Prior) on the eve of her life-altering aptitude test. Dystopian Chicago is a contained remnant of people consisting of five different factions: Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Candor (the honest), Erudite (the intelligent), and Amity (the peaceful). The test will cast her in one of the five groups and she will have to choose to remain in the faction she was born into, Abnegation, or to choose another and leave her family and everything she knows behind. Except when Tris wakes up from the aptitude test, there's a problem. She doesn't fit into one faction, but three. With inclinations towards Abnegnation, Dauntless, and Erudite - she's Divergent. Only that is not supposed to happen and she doesn't know what it means, except that it's dangerous. If only she knew how much. 

As in (nearly) all YA fiction, dystopian or not, there is a boy and his name is Four. The great thing is that Four isn't the center of Tris's universe, and though he is quite the satellite, there are bigger things to tackle than first-love butterflies. Dauntless initiation proves more a test of violent brutality and terror than Tris could initially believe. Trusting the enigmatic Four is another leap of faith altogether. Yet though small and slight, Tris thrives and begins to discover a strength within herself that she never knew she had. 

The first three-quarters of Divergent was initially what I enjoyed the most about the novel. Not only does Roth provide an in-depth look into the society and ideals of the Dauntless faction, but odd occurrences and dark whispers spin delicately around the main action. The tests for initiation are creative and both the characters that Tris befriends as well as the sociopathic enemies she makes feel three-dimensional, rather than flat. Sometimes, they even remember that they are sixteen too. 

The mysterious hints culminate into a large twist near the end of the novel - one that explodes the previous pace and arguably transforms the novel into another animal entirely. This turn leads into Roth's second installment, Insurgent. Maybe it was just me, but I cannot say that I didn't entirely see it coming. It wasn't so much the 'what? what?! WHAT!' shock and awe, as much as the 'oooo you evil (greedy/bratty/morally lacking) psychos finally came out to play'. I won't ruin it for you, in case you find yourself still open to surprises.

Though I missed the old (new) world of the Dauntless, the direction was probably necessary choice and a good one. Tris can't remain in Dauntless forever, not for a trilogy anyway. There is loss, destruction, chaos and redemption in the twist, but also a lingering endnote of hope in the unknown. If you unsure about the bloodiness of dystopian realities and the contents of your stomach, trust me that Divergent is light in its brutality (for now). I admit I already purchased Insurgent, because I am looking forward to where Roth takes us next. What are the other factions like? What mini-societies she can create? More importantly, what is her overarching big whammy of a twist? It's the curiosity that gets me (and probably you too). 

In short, Divergent is an engaging, quick and good read. Notably, the concept behind the factions is fresh and original. It isn't precisely whole-wheat high-fiber for the mind, but it's not junk food either (something that the YA world benefits from after its explosion of star-crossed vampires of the every sort). In fact, it's a bit like a appetizing, healthy chicken recipe: delicious and satisfying. Speaking of, here it is. 

Rosemary Garlic Vinegar Chicken

Serves: 2
Preparation Time: 30-35 minutes

2 chicken breasts or 4-6 mini chicken breast fillets
1 packet of fresh rosemary and 2 tbsp of dried rosemary
1/2 cup of sherry vinegar
1/2 chicken broth (chicken stock for the UK)
3-4 cloves of garlic (chopped)
sea salt (according to your judgment) 
course/fine ground black pepper (according to your judgment)

Your choice of vegetables to steam and serve*
Used here: 1/2 bunch of broccoli, 1/2 bunch of cauliflower, 4 small carrots, 1/2 butternut squash, 1/2 sweet potato

Sundried tomato and garlic cous-cous*
1/2 a packet of sundried tomatoes 
4 sun blush tomatoes, cut in quarters
1/4 cup of chicken broth
1 tbsp of garlic powder
1 tbsp of italian mixed herbs seasoning
1/2-3/4 cup of cous-cous (regular is fine, so it giant-sized)

*adjust according to your appetite/tastes

1. Put the vegetables on to steam, they will take the longest. Besides, the softer they are, the better.
2. While they begin, spread 1 tbsp of olive oil over a pan and place on medium heat. Season the chicken with half the serving of the black pepper, salt, and dried rosemary. Place the chicken in the pan and be careful to notice the heat (jumping oil is too hot and lack of a little sizzle is too low, moderate is ever a virtue). Now add in the rest of the pepper, salt, and dried rosemary. The amounts recommended above are ideal for seasoning, but I personally go with my cooking intuition. You be your own judge about exact recipes and improvisation.
3. When the chicken is about half-way through cooking, add in the chopped garlic. Make sure that it browns, but do not burn it. Mix up everything really well to pick up the various flavors and to prevent burning incidents. It should look like this.

3. Now take out another smaller saucepan. Place on medium heat and pour 1 tsp of olive oil. Add your desired amount of cous-cous (regular or giant), the garlic powder and italian seasoning to the pan. Allow the cous-cous to spread and turnover for about 1-2 minutes (dependent on your heat) until very lightly browned. Add in the broth so that a thin layer covers the cous-cous. If the cous-cous absorbs this too quickly without softening, add more broth. When half the broth is gone, add in the sunblush tomatoes and allow them to soften. 
4. Once the chicken is golden brown and fully cooked (cut a small slice through the center if you are unsure, it should be entirely free of any pink), add the sherry vinegar, chicken broth, and fresh rosemary to the pan. Adjust the amount of sherry vinegar and broth according to your pan. The chicken should be mostly submerged, but visible. Do not drown your chicken, it/you will not like it. It should look like the below. Adjust to low heat for 3-4 minutes until chicken is fork tender.

5. Check on those vegetables. If they are ready, turn off the heat but keep the lid on the pot to keep warm, if not check again after the next step. 
6. How's that cous-cous coming? When the cous-cous and sunblush tomatoes are softened, it's time to add in the sundried tomatoes. Lower the heat on the pan and mixed all the ingredients around very well. You want the flavor to be absorbed by the cous-cous.
7. Time to check on your chicken again. After your chicken meets your approval on tenderness, remove it from the sauce and place it on a plate, but keep it warm. Increase to high heat and boil the sauce for 3-5 minutes (or longer) until the sauce thickens or becomes syrupy. A boil is desirable, but if you have sauce surging out and spilling over the edges, you're not in a good state. Once thickened, lower the heat to the lowest setting.
8. Is everything ready? Should be! Now serve out the steamed vegetables, cous-cous, and chicken. Make sure to pour the heated sauce over the chicken for extra quality taste. Grab any drinks of your preference. If you are so inclined, the suggested wine is a Sauvignon Blanc. Enjoy!

Friday, 18 May 2012

Coming Soon

Hello Readers,

First book review and accompanying recipe is on its way!