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NYT Bestselling Author. Reluctant master of packing light. Lover of beautiful shoes & spicy food. Lapsed ballerina. Cook. Book junkie.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

READ THIS - WATCH THIS - COOK THIS: JUNE

I can’t believe it’s already June 1. Time might be flying, but the world is still giving me a headache, so I’m happy to distract myself by sharing some good things for the month…

READ THIS

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth 


My friends Sachin and Kalpana introduced me to this book, and I fell in love with it from page one. So let’s just get this out of the way: Yes, it’s long. Very long. As in more than a thousand pages. When it was published it was (and still may be) the longest single volume novel in English. I read fast, so I consider this a good thing. Set in post-Raj India, the book tells the story of Lata, whose mother is bent on finding her daughter a suitable boy to marry. Translation: a Hindu of the right caste. Lata, an enlightened university student, has other ideas.  

Seth weaves a family epic full of gorgeous details of Indian culture as well as the tensions between Hindu and Muslim factions. His characters are endlessly fascinating and his prose is sleek. This is not a gritty story, which so far as I am concerned makes it all the more worthy of recommendation. Some people criticize Seth for not including more of the seedy parts of urban life, but that is not what this book is about. Frankly, there’s enough of that in the real world; I’m happy to escape into something else. While you won’t be disappointed by giving this a chance, you will be surprised how quickly you breeze through it. Andrew Davies is currently adapting the novel for the BBC. I’m sure it will be fantastic, but read the book before you watch!

WATCH THIS

The Hundred Foot Journey



OK, so I never would have expected to find a film that combines these three things I love: Indian food, the south of France, and Helen Mirren.

After their restaurant in Mumbai is destroyed in a fire that took the life of their mother, the Kadam family moves to London. Their house, directly beneath the flight path to Heathrow, leaves more than a little to be desired, and Papa Kadam (played by the magnificent Om Puri) decides it’s time to go somewhere else. They head for the Continent, where his eldest son, Hassan (Manish Dayal, explains to an immigration officer why he left the UK: “I found in England that the vegetables, they had no soul; no life.”

How can you NOT like a movie with that line?

The Kadams end up in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, where Papa buys a vacant building he decides will be the perfect location for the family’s new restaurant. His children try in vain to dissuade him, insisting the French don’t eat ethnic food. Meanwhile, he draws the ire of Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) who runs the one star Michelin restaurant across the street. She’s horrified by her new neighbors, and a battle between them ensues.

This is a wonderful film, charming, funny, and touching without being overly sentimental. I loved it. Be warned, however. It will make you hungry.



COOK THIS

Murgh Jalfrazie (Chicken with Stir-Fried Spices)



As I’m on a bit of an Indian kick here, I’m sharing my favorite recipe for chicken jalfrazie, which comes from Mridula Baljekar’s fabulous cookbook, Curry: Fire and Spice. I could eat this pretty much every single day. You’ll want to check out Baljekar’s website (http://mridula.co.uk), where you can find this and many more of his recipes, but I highly suggest buying the book. First, because authors need to eat, too, and second because you won’t want to miss any of his dishes!

Ingredients
  • 700g/1lb 9oz boneless and skinless chicken breasts or thighs
  • The juice of half a lemon
  • 1 tsp salt or to taste
  • 5 tbsps sunflower, rapeseed or plain olive oil
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 2 tsps garlic puree
  • 2 tsps ginger puree
  • ½ tsp ground turmeric
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 2 tsps ground coriander
  • ½-1 tsp chilli powder
  • 150g/5oz canned tomato with the juice
  • 1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
  • 1 small or half a large sweet red pepper, cut into 2.5cm/1-inch cubes
  • 1 small or half a large green pepper, cut into 2.5cm/1-inch cubes
  • 1 tsp garam masala

Put the chicken in a non-metallic bowl and rub in the lemon juice and half the salt. Set aside for 30 minutes.

Heat four tablespoons of the oil in a heavy based medium saucepan over a medium heat and add the onion. Fry, stirring regularly, for 8-9 minutes or until lightly browned, reducing the heat half way through. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for 2 minutes. Add the turmeric, cumin, coriander and chilli powder and cook for 1 minute. Add a splash of water and stir-fry for another minute or so. Add the tomatoes and cook for a further 2-3 minutes or until the tomatoes reduce to a paste-like consistency and the oil separates from the spice paste.

Add the chicken, increase the heat slightly and cook, stirring until chicken is opaque. Add 150ml/5 fl oz warm water, bring it to the boil, cover the pan and simmer for 25 minutes.

Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a small pan or wok over a low heat. Add the garlic and sauté until browned, and add the peppers. Increase the heat to medium, stir-fry for 2 minutes and add the garam masala. Stir and fold the contents into the cooked chicken. Remove from the heat and serve with rice or Indian bread.


Monday, May 1, 2017

READ THIS - WATCH THIS - COOK THIS : MAY

I can't believe it's the first of the month again. Chicago is finally (sort of) getting some spring weather, but I'm off to Wyoming tomorrow, where I'm hoping to see a little snow. So! What do I recommend to help us all focus on good stuff this month?


READ THIS



David Mitchell, Black Swan Green


It’s no secret that I consider David Mitchell to be the best novelist working today, and my signed copy of this book is one of my most treasured possessions. Black Swan Green tells the story of thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor navigating life in a small English village during the early 1980s. The characters are gorgeously developed, from Jason himself (an aspiring poet who struggles with a stammer), to his sly older sister, his often-bickering parents, and schoolmates (friends and enemies alike).

Let’s face it; thirteen is a pretty crummy age, and I’m sure most of don’t harbor a hidden desire to revisit it. But this book elevates the coming-of-age story in a way no other does. It makes Catcher in the Rye hide in shame. Joy and wonder erase and then are erased by pain and betrayal in a cycle we can all recognize from adolescence. This book makes the ordinary enchanting and magical and is an absolute pleasure to read.

I leave you with one of favorite lines in the novel:

“If you show someone something you've written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, ‘When you’re ready’.”

True, true words.


WATCH THIS


Sing Faster: The Stagehands’ Ring Cycle


John Else’s 1999 utterly charming documentary follows the San Francisco Opera’s production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle from backstage. Sure, the singers are fantastic, but the drama behind the scenes is every bit as enticing. Witty, insightful, and masterfully filmed, this is entertainment at its best. Watching the stagehands explain the plot (over a game of poker played when they’re not moving scenery) will make you laugh out loud (“Doesn't one of the giants get a chick out of the deal?”).

COOK THIS



I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who didn’t like chocolate chip cookies, and when Kathy Lapergola asked for my recipe, I knew it was what I’d have to share this month. My go-to favorite comes from an ancient copy of Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book given to me by my grandmother. They were the first recipe I adapted for high-altitude cooking when I moved to Wyoming after college and what I made for after school snacks on my son’s first day of high school.

Betty names these the Best Cooky of 1935 – 1940. My only question is when did the spelling change from “cooky” to “cookie?”

Chocolate Chip Cookies


2/3 cup butter
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup brown sugar (packed)
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
½ cup chopped nuts (optional)
1 cup chocolate chips

Pre-heat oven to 375

Mix butter, sugars, egg, and vanilla thoroughly. Measure flour after sifting. Stir dry ingredients together; blend in. Mix in nuts and chocolate chips. Drop rounded teaspoonfuls of dough about 2 inches apart on ungreased baking sheet (I always cover mine with parchment paper to avoid extra dish washing). Bake 8 to 10 minutes, or until delicately browned. (Cookies should still be soft) Cool slightly before removing from baking sheet.

Makes 4 to 5 dozen 2 inch cookies


Variations: Sometimes I use half chocolate and half butterscotch chips. Also, it can be fun to combine different varieties of chocolate, say, bittersweet and semi-sweet. There’s also nothing wrong with throwing in some pieces of toffee crunch, too.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

READ THIS - WATCH THIS - COOK THIS: April


For a respite from the crazy around us, my suggestions for what to read, watch, and cook during April…


READ THIS


Margaret George, The Memoirs of Cleopatra




This book…..oh, this book! I bought it to read on a plane. Thought it looked interesting and, furthermore, it was long enough that I figured it would get me through the flight there and back. It did much more than that.

This is one of those novels that grabs you by the shoulders, pulls you in, and doesn’t let go, even after you’ve finished the last page. The best historical fiction based on actual people and events takes what we know from primary sources and fills in the details, offering us the chance to better understand the past. George is a master when it comes to seamlessly incorporating thorough—and accurate—research. She’s never didactic, but you will come away from her retelling of Cleopatra’s life realizing that everything you thought you knew about the last Egyptian pharaoh is, pretty much, wrong. If you’re like me, you’ll also come away with a deep and abiding hatred of Octavian. You will scoff at the mention of anything Augustan. You might, even, be inclined to take scowling photos next to busts of the emperor.  You will wish there was a way to rehabilitate Marc Antony’s reputation. But most of all, you will fall madly in love with this intelligent woman who the Roman historian Dio Cassius described as "brilliant...with the power to subjugate every one..."

I bought this in hardcover. When it came out in paperback, I bought that, too, so that my hardcover wouldn’t get too worn out. And now I’ve got the e-book as well. Yeah. It’s one of those. Read it now; you won’t regret it.

True story: When I was doing an event in Madison, Wisconsin, I had my best-ever writer moment. Margaret George came to my signing. I have to say it again. MARGARET GEORGE CAME TO MY SIGNING. I still get giddy whenever I think about it. Funnily enough, a few minutes before she arrived I was singing the praises of The Memoirs of Cleopatra to the booksellers…


WATCH THIS


The Misadventures of Margaret



OK, so this is a quirky movie that a lot of people hate. I get that it stretches credulity to suggest that any woman would get irritated by Jeremy Northam reciting love poetry to her, but don’t let that put you off. It’s witty and fun and based on Catherine Schine’s satirical novel Rameau's Niece. Which reminds me: I loaned my copy to someone and never got it back. Anybody know where it is? I’ll love you forever if you return it. At any rate, Schine’s story is a riff on Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew, a deliciously witty philosophical dialogue that might remind you a bit of Candide.

In the film, Margaret (Parker Posey) is a catastrophically neurotic writer who, after penning a blockbuster bestseller, is paralyzed with writer’s block. For the follow-up to her debut, she’s trying to adapt the 18th century diary of a French philosopher and is getting nowhere until she travels to France and discovers the truth about the philosopher’s relationship with the beautiful, young woman he is tutoring.

The film bounces back and forth between Margaret’s world and that of her book as she imagines the scenes she’s writing (often with deliberate anachronisms from her own life). The strong supporting cast, including Elizabeth McGovern, Brooke Shields, and Craig Chester, provide lots of laughs. Northam nails his role as Edward, Margaret’s dreamy English professor husband. In the book Schine describes the character thus:

"If he had been seated beside a rock, he would have quickly begun an animated discussion of its layers of granite or sandstone or lime, its life underground, its ocean journeys and aspirations for the future. Intoxicated by this encounter, he would regale Margaret with tales of the rock's history, which he would tell with such enthusiasm and such grace that she would laugh and hope that some day she too might sit beside a stone at dinner. And the stone? It would sigh and bask in its newly realized glory, its importance and beauty, necessity and dignity: I pave roads and build towers, I form mountains, I rest on the throats of gracious ladies!"

Don’t try to tell me you don’t want to watch Northam be this man; I’ll know you’re lying.

It’s a fun romp, always eccentric, occasionally sly, and often silly. But go with it; you’re bound to laugh at least once.


COOK THIS


Buttermilk Scones




I’m sure none of you need me to explain why we all need a great scone recipe. This is my favorite, adapted from Baking with Julia. Yep. More Julia Child. Because she’s the best. In this book, she brings in master bakers to contribute, and Marion Cunningham is the genius behind this recipe.

3 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
2 ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
¾ tsp salt
1 ½ sticks (6 oz) cold butter, cut into small pieces
1 cup (approximately) buttermilk
Zest from one good-sized lemon

Set aside an additional half stick (2 oz) of melted butter to brush on the scones

Preheat oven to 425

In a medium bowl, stir the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together with a fork. Add the cold butter pieces and, using your fingertips, work the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. It’s OK if some largish pieces of butter remain—they’ll add to the scones’ flakiness.

Pour in 1 cup buttermilk, toss in zest, and mix with the fork only until the ingredients are just moistened—you’ll have a soft dough with a rough look. If the dough looks dry, add another tablespoon of buttermilk. Gather the dough into a ball, pressing it gently so that it holds together, turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface, and knead it very briefly—a dozen turns should do it.

Roll dough, using a light touch, until it is ½ inch thick. Using a biscuit cutter, cut out the scones. I generally use a 2-inch round cutter, but you can choose whatever size you prefer. Place the scones on a parchment-covered baking sheet, leaving space between each, and brush the tops with the melted butter.

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until both the tops and bottoms are golden (time will partly depend on what size cutter you used, so keep an eye on them as they bake). Transfer scones to a rack and cool slightly.


They are spectacular warm with butter on them, or at any temperature with jam and cream. Obviously, you will need tea with them…