2017 Book Review

I take New Year’s Resolutions very seriously. I love goal setting and the idea of a fresh year to make changes, but I try to steer my resolutions to be more practical and specific – usually a small life change that I can maintain. Past resolutions have included not hitting the snooze button, giving up diet soda, trying new restaurants, and using a turn signal.

So, my 2017 resolution was to read more books. I also paired it with a focus word of PRESENT – because my goal was to read more and spend less time mindless on the internet. After a few weeks, I evolved my goal into reading 52 books for the year -averaging a book a week.

I’m proud to say that as of yesterday, December 30th, I finished my 52nd book. Because I read a lot, people often ask for book recommendations, so I thought I’d share my “best of” for 2017 – with a few caveats. First, I didn’t purchase any books, I only read from the library overdrive on my Kindle – so I tend to run my maximum amount of holds and sometimes don’t get new releases for a while. Second, I love nonfiction and some of my books were weirdly specific (a book on sibling rivalry, 3 books on dog training, etc.). Third, I like serious books, but I also read for entertainment and that often comes in the form of Elin Hilderbrand. It’s kind of like when you need to watch House Hunters or Friends reruns after you watch the PBS Vietnam documentary – balance, yo. So I’ve given you a few categories.

Finally, as embarrassed as I am to admit it, until this year I hadn’t read any of the Harry Potter books. I don’t typically like fantasy, I was just a little too old when they came out, and then by the time I thought I should try, 7 books just seemed really daunting (particularly in the years I was teaching and had babies). So this year, once I’d established that I’d be reading a lot, I gave them a try and convinced my husband to do the same. We both absolutely love the series – I’m through the first 5 books and waitlisted at the library for the Half-Blood Prince. I can’t really rank them because you need to read them in order, and I think most people have already read the series, but if you haven’t, I would highly recommend starting. It’s beautifully written, character-driven, and I’ve stayed awake late at night with each book unable to put it down.

Best “Light” Reads:

  1. The Crazy Rich Asians series, by Kevin Kwan – It’s a 3-book series and if you want to be entertained, it’s your best bet. I’ve heard there’s a movie coming, too, which I can see being fabulous.
  2. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty – I read it before I watched the HBO series and both are excellent. I also read Truly Madly Guilty, and it was good, but I didn’t like it as much.
  3. One True Loves by Taylor Jenkins Reid – A quick, easy read, but I couldn’t put it down and thought about it long after I’d finished.
  4. I love Elin Hilderbrand because she comes out with new books all the time and they’re light, easy reads with interesting characters, but some are better than others. The Identicals and The Rumor were the best two I read this year. I also read the 4-part Winter Street series and it’s great if you need a heartwarming Christmas read.
  5. The Royal We by Heather Cocks – if you’re counting down the days to Prince Harry’s wedding, you’ll love it.

Best Serious Fiction:

  1. Along the Infinite Sea by Beatriz Williams – I’m not sure whether it would fall more under historical fiction or a love story, but I couldn’t put it down. I have several more Beatriz Williams books on hold for 2018.
  2. The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman – Beautifully written and conflicting – my mom and I discussed the outcome for days.
  3. Me Before You by Jojo Moyes – Look, I was totally turned off by this because the movie looked lame, but I needed something to read late one night and it was on the front page of the library page, so I tried it and I loved it. The sequel was just OK, I didn’t love it.
  4. The Alice Network by Kate Quinn – We read this for book club and I was totally into it. It’s historical fiction, but based on actual female spies during WWII.
  5. Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult – A really hard read, but in our current socio-political landscape, it’s an important, perspective-changing read.

Best Nonfiction:

  1. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi – It’s hard to recommend a book that makes you ugly cry, but I think it was the best book I read this year.
  2. Born a Crime by Trevor Noah – I’ve heard the audiobook is even better as it’s narrated by Trevor Noah. This is not a “how he became famous” autobiography, but rather a dark, honest look at growing up in South Africa post-apartheid.
  3. A Year of Yes by Shonda Rimes – lighter, but if you’re looking to get inspired and Oprahed, this is your best bet.
  4. Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari – Do the audiobook. Unexpectedly, this is a well-researched look at modern dating culture around the world, but it’s also funny. If you love Master of None, you’ll love the book.
  5. I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzi – You truly can’t imagine that such a person exists in our time. The book is a bit dense with Pakistani and Taliban history, but her spirit and drive is remarkable.

I also loved My One Word, Bread and Wine, Love WarriorSiblings Without Rivalry, and Instant Mom.

Don’t waste your time:

  1. The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher – I think she’s an interesting person, but this particular book was terrible.
  2. Love, Loss, and What We Ate by Padma Lakshmi – I always liked her until I read this book.
  3. Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly – A fantastic story, but honestly, the movie is much better.
  4. The Vacationers by Emma Straub – a book with no point.
  5. Class Mom by Laurie Gelman – meh.

So there you go, 15+ books to read this year and 5 to not. Happy reading!

 

Super Easy OJ Salmon

I used to hate salmon. Back when it was “in” and every restaurant served the same boring, overcooked, dry, underseasoned salmon over a bed of wild rice. It was just so not my thing. Plus, I’m kind of a fish snob so I already don’t eat tilapia or catfish and it was pretty easy just to lump salmon in with other inferior fishes and move on.

But then, of course, things changed. Beef became outrageously expensive, we got older and realized we couldn’t eat Taco Bell twice a week and not gain weight, and my grocery store started putting salmon on sale nearly every Monday. So, I gave it another chance. As far as meals with a high deliciousness to work ratio, this is a true winner. The leftover marinade makes the sauce and really all you need is a salad on the side and you have a complete, healthy meal.

I use frozen salmon because I live in Texas and 2 pounds is generally enough to feed 4-5 adults in my home provided I have a hearty salad. If you have more fish, just adjust the marinade accordingly – you don’t want to run out of the sauce.

Super Easy OJ Salmon
2 lbs salmon fillets, thawed, de-boned, skin on or off

1 cup orange juice

1/2 cup soy sauce 

1 T honey (no need to use a measuring spoon, a hearty squeeze will do)

cooking oil of choice – I’ve used olive oil spray and coconut oil spray.

  1. In a gallon-sized ziplock bag or a nonporous bowl, whisk together the OJ, soy sauce, and honey until well combined. Place the fish into the marinade, ensuring that all of the fish is covered. Allow to sit for 20-30 minutes, but no longer than that.
  2. Set your oven to “warm” and place a cookie sheet inside (lined with foil if you don’t like scrubbing fishy pans). Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat, spray with oil and place 3-4 fillets on hot pan to cook. Cook the fish for about 3 minutes on each side until it flakes. Transfer cooked fish to the warm oven and continue until all of the fish are cooked. DO NOT THROW THE MARINADE AWAY!
  3. Turn the heat up to high and pour the remaining marinade into the skillet. Deglaze the pan, scraping up all of the leftover fish bits.  Stir and cook over high heat until the marinade has reduced by about 75% and becomes thick and dark.
  4. Remove the fish from the warm oven and serve with the sauce.

Broccoli, goat cheese, and sun-dried tomato pasta

Some nights I like to try new, exotic, fancy dinners with a million ingredients. Recipes that require me to watch a YouTube video or two, mess up every dish in the kitchen, and listen to pronunciations to make myself sound legitimate. I love to cook and I thrive on new challenges and techniques.

That said, sometimes at 6:30 it is just not possible.

Sometimes at 6:30 I’ve been up for too many hours with hyper, obnoxious children and am only running on leftover coffee fumes. Sometimes I come in from yard work or playing with kids in the yard and barely have time to wash my hands before jumping into cooking because all of my grannies come over for dinner on Tuesday. Sometimes I’ve been breaking up sibling fights and getting whacked with cars and have dried cheerios stuck to my pants and just need to make something so easy that I can do it AND send kids to the naughty chair at the same time. Sometimes the kitchen is already a disaster and I have a sink full of dirt, a dishwasher full of dirty dishes, and a barbie convention taking place on the counter. Tonight ALL of those things happened, and I made this pasta.

Also, it has 5 ingredients and they’re mostly in the title, so you can remember them even when a 4-year-old uses your grocery list to spit something gross into and you’re racing through the store with a screaming toddler who stuck his complimentary magic pop (sucker) in his hair and thus can’t lick it and you have to pee so bad because you quit drinking diet coke and replaced it with iced tea, which causes you to always need to pee.

So basically this dinner is cheap, easy, fast, requires only a few dishes and ingredients, and has vegetables in it so you can just serve it without any pesky sides or anything. It’s also vegetarian and grandma/kid friendly.

Broccoli, goat cheese, and sun-dried tomato pasta

Serves about 6

6ish cups of fresh broccoli (about 3 heads)

3-4 large cloves of garlic

1 lb dried orecchiette pasta (you could easily use bowties, too)

8 oz jarred sun-dried tomatoes (TJs makes an 8.5oz jar, I just use that)

6 oz goat cheese

Salt, pepper, olive oil

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°, and bring a large, salted pot of water to boil for the pasta.
  2. Chop the broccoli into bite-sized florets and peel the garlic cloves. Toss the broccoli and whole garlic cloves with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper, arrange onto a baking sheet, and bake for about 15 minutes.
  3. Cook the orecchiette according to package directions (10 minutes or so). When you drain the pasta, reserve about a cup of the pasta water. Chop up the sun-dried tomatoes if they are whole, if they come julienned just grab a glass of wine and pretend to be busy.
  4. When the broccoli and garlic are done, roughly chop the roasted garlic. Heat a large skillet over medium high heat and pour in about a tablespoon of the sun-dried tomato oil. Cook the garlic in the oil for 30 seconds or so, then stir in the broccoli and the sun-dried tomatoes cooking it all together for about 5 minutes.
  5. Stir the cooked pasta and the broccoli mixture together in a large bowl. Crumble the goat cheese on top and stir to melt the cheese in. If the mixture is too dry, add in some of the reserved pasta water to loosen it up (I typically add in 1/4 to 1/2 a cup). Season with S&P to taste.

Chocolate Strawberry Dipcakes

When I was little, driving through Dairy Queen on a road trip was one of the finest pleasures known to me. A blizzard lover myself, I long lamented the lack of DQs near my home, but was able to satisfy cravings frequently on weekend trips to our lake house. When my youngest brother was about 2 years old he fell in love with Dip (or is it dipped?  I live in Texas, here it’s just dip) Cones. He would savor it slowly, letting all of the melted chocolate and ice cream cover the entirety of his body, hair, and overalls. It was always a look of pure bliss.

I didn’t know you could apply the dip cone process to cupcakes until a few years ago.  It’s called a “hi hat”and it’s much easier than it looks. It is a 3-step process – baking the cupcakes, making the frosting and piping, then dipping, but it’s worth the process. You could do this with any flavor of cupcake and buttercream, too, but Valentine’s Day kind of lends itself to chocolate covered strawberries. I call them “dipcakes”. When I last made these, I did make the mistake of making mini-cupcakes. You get about 4 mini cupcakes for every 1 regular cupcake, so it sounds awesome in theory, but baking, frosting, and dipping 100+ cupcakes was super annoying.  Half the recipe if you want minis.

Also, let it be known that I finally figured out how to make a degree symbol in wordpress.
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Chocolate Cupcakes

yield 24 regular cupcakes or a million little cupcakes (90+)

1 1/2 cups hot brewed coffee

3/4 cup cocoa powder

12 T (1.5 sticks) butter, softened

1 1/2 cups brown sugar

3/4 cups sugar

3 eggs

1 T vanilla extract

2 1/2 cups AP flour

1 1/2 tsp baking soda

3/4 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°. In a small bowl, whisk the cocoa powder into the coffee until it is all dissolved and set aside.
  2. In a bowl of a stand mixer or large mixing bowl, cream the butter and both sugars until light and fluffy, 3-5 minutes. Add in the eggs one at a time until incorporated, then the vanilla and beat it all together for a minute or two.
  3. Stir the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt together. Add the flour mixture and the coffee mixture to the butter mixture about a cup at a time, alternating the two and making sure each addition is fully incorporated and scraped down before adding more.
  4. Fill cupcake liners 2/3 full and bake for about 20 minutes (12-14 if you’re making minis), until a toothpick comes out clean.  Allow the cupcakes to completely cool.

 

Strawberry Buttercream

yields approximately 8 cups of frosting – plenty to frost 24 cupcakes.

1 cup butter (2 sticks), softened

1 cup crisco (I buy the foil wrapped packs, it’s one stick)

7-8 cups powdered sugar

1 T vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract

1/3 cup milk or cream (up to a 1/2 cup)

1 cup finely diced fresh strawberries

  1. Beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy – at least 5 minutes. Add in 7 cups of powdered sugar 1 cup at a time, making sure to fully incorporate between additions.  Beat the mixture for another few minutes to fluff it up.
  2. Add in the vanilla and cream and beat the whole mixture for an additional 3-4 minutes until the whole mixture becomes light and fluffy. If the mixture seems too dense, add in a bit more cream, a tablespoon or two at a time, if it seems too runny, add in powdered sugar 1/4 cup at a time until you reach your desired consistency.
  3. Pour in the strawberries and beat on high until the strawberries are beaten in, this takes a few minutes on high. Stir to make sure no big strawberry chunks remain and check consistency again.
  4. Frost cupcakes using a wide tip (because the strawberry bits tend to get stuck – I use my biggest round tip). Be generous with frosting and remember that the chocolate hides a lot of imperfections.

 

Chocolate Dip

10 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips (I use the ghirardelli in the brown bag)

1-2 Tbsp vegetable or canola oil

  1. Stick the frosted cupcakes in the freezer for about 10 minutes, heat the chocolate while they cool.
  2. Melt the chocolate in the microwave in 30 second increments (it will burn if you go any longer). I use a pyrex glass 2-cup measuring cup for this. Between each microwave, stir the mixture completely and allow to cool. The chocolate will melt as it sits, so be patient. Stir in 1 T of oil after the first microwaving and add more if the chocolate doesn’t easily ribbon off of the back of a spoon. Once your chocolate is smooth and luscious, get the cupcakes out of the freezer.
  3. One at a time, dip the cupcakes into the chocolate, making sure to twist them a bit on the way out to let the excess chocolate drip off.  I use a toothpick to make sure all areas are covered.  After letting the chocolate run off for a few seconds, let the chocolate cool and harden – this can take about an hour, especially if it’s warm in your kitchen. If you’d like to add sprinkles or gold dust, add that about 5 minutes after you’ve dipped.
  4. Once completely cool and hardened, store the cupcakes at coolish room temperature (the refrigerator does weird things to them, but heat will melt them).

Prosciutto Asparagus Hash with a fried egg

Lately, making a pan full of rich goodness and then frying an egg on top of it is kind of my thing. I love fried eggs – the runny yolk, the temperament, the way it oozes into everything – it’s perfection. This hash also contains only items I love. It takes about an hour, but the hour is really easy and cleanup is minor.

This meal does NOT serve more than 4. It is, in fact, ideal for 3.

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Prosciutto Asparagus Hash

4 ounces prosciutto

1.5lbs potatoes (I used yukon gold, but red would be fine here, too)

1 onion

1 bundle of asparagus (no idea how big these are, but they always come in a rubber band)

4 eggs

3-4 ounces goat cheese

3 green onions

S&P, olive oil

  1. Slice the prosciutto into small pieces and fry them in a large skillet over medium/high heat for a few minutes until crispy. Pull them out with a slotted spoon, leaving the rendered fat in the pan. Hide the prosciutto somewhere so you don’t eat it all while cooking. Dice your potatoes into 1-inch pieces. I chose not to peel mine, because I like things rustic and lazy.
  2. In that same pan, add a little olive oil if needed, and toss in the potatoes.  Season them with salt and pepper and let them start to brown. Chop the onion while you’re waiting. After about 10 minutes, add the onion in and continue to brown until they’re not quite done, but close, about 15 minutes more. Keep turning them every few minutes so they don’t burn or stick.
  3. While you’re waiting on potatoes to brown, because it takes forever, cut off the woody ends of the asparagus and chop them up into 1-inch pieces. Crumble up the goat cheese and finely chop up the green onion.
  4. Toss the asparagus in and let it cook in for another 5 minutes with the lid on, then add the prosciutto back on and let it all get nice and hot.
  5. Crack the eggs on top and let them cook on top of the hash. It takes about 5 minutes, but I gauge doneness by when the egg whites are opaque.
  6. Serve with crumbled goat cheese and green onion. Make sure everyone gets an egg.

 

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen