Sunday, January 31, 2010

24. Reading List

For weeks I have been thinking about this list of the best books I read in 2009. Should I just include the top 5? Will anyone actually look at the entire list if it's long? Who am I to voice an opinion about these books? My reading got off to a shaky start last year; I read a few truly mediocre things and wondered what was going on, even thinking that the craft of writing was going downhill. But then after a few weeks I hit my stride and haven't stopped since. Already in 2010 I've read something notable and have a huge pile of promising suspects next to my bed.

So here's my lengthy list of favorites for last year, mostly in the order I read them. And I would love to hear your comments on these books, too, if you are familiar with them.

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. Petterson is Norwegian and his description of landscape is hauntingly beautiful. The main character is a retired man who returns home to live out his years in a remote cabin. Flashbacks of his younger days with his father are interspersed with adjusting to life alone.

The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss. An independent, go-getter young woman makes her living breaking horses in Oregon during World War I.

The Tenth Muse-My Life in Food by Judith Jones. Jones, editor for Julia Child, writes a chatty, but inspiring book about the importance of good food. I particularly liked her admonition to cook well, even if it's just for one.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. There has been so much said about this book; what can I possibly add? That in my last days I don't want to look back and see that I've squandered day after day. I will read this again.

Seeking Peace by Mary Pipher. Pipher is best known for her Reviving Ophelia, a book I didn't much like. But this one is full of wisdom for a woman my age. She is a stunningly compassionate and astute writer.

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. A fictional biography of Laura Bush. Not being a fan of Mrs. Bush , I absolutely DID NOT want to read this book! But a choir member thrust it into my hands and said You have got to read this. She was right: I couldn't put it down and likewise learned something about seeing a story from more than one side.

Appassionata by Eva Hoffman. The title refers to Beethoven's piano sonata of the same name and well describes the temperaments of the two main characters. Isabel, an accomplished pianist, begins a tumultuous affair during a concert tour with Anzor, a Chechen man. Along the way she begins to question the importance and significance of her chosen career and wonders does making music do any good for the world?

Where Dreams Die Hard by Carl Stowers. A small, sweet story of one year in the life of the 6-man football team in Penelope, Texas. I know something about this town, as my first husband was pastor of the Baptist church there in 1977 and I, of course, played the piano for services.

Drinking the Rain by Alix Kates Shulman. Compelling memoir of a woman finding herself in her 50's, after raising a family and discarding a bad marriage. Her later memoir, To Love What Is: A Marriage Transformed was on my list last year.

The Whole World Over by Julia Glass. A good, old-fashioned novel with believable, quirky characters to love, cry over and encourage. Much of the story takes place in Santa Fe and I could taste the green chilies and feel the unrelenting southwestern sun.

A Happy Marriage by Rafael Iglesias. The saga of a marriage, not always or conventionally happy, from the first meeting to final goodbye. The book alternates between the couple's last few years, as he cares for his dying wife, and the story of their courtship, marrying, raising children and negotiating the hurdles of life. You'll shed tears over this one.

Why Religion Matters by Huston Smith. This venerable author explains just why religion does matter to our hungry, suffocated souls. The finitude of mundane existence cannot satisfy the human heart completely. Built into the human makeup is a longing for a "more" that the world of everyday experience cannot requite. Not an easy read, but worth the struggle.

That's it. Twelve notable and worthy books. Happy Reading.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

23. Cooking with Christie

New Year's Eve has always been an overrated holiday in my book. For years I ignored it by hosting a big open house on January 1, complete with a pot of black-eyed peas for good luck, of course. With 30 or so friends arriving on our doorstep that day, there was no way I could go out and party the night before. But more recently Bill and I have been going to Connecticut for the holiday to visit our friends Christie and Jay and I'm learning how to celebrate in style. Despite having to dodge snowstorms on each trip, I like this new tradition and hope it will continue.

Christie and I met in 1985 when our babies were baptized together in Dallas. Subsequently both of our families moved to New England and even though we live 400 miles apart our friendship has prospered. I-95 from Maine to Connecticut has become commonplace for both of us- no map needed. Up until their college years Christopher or Emily would usually be in tow and we even stopped for a visit on our way to Emily's first semester at GW.

Very early in our friendship Christie and I found we were both interested in cooking good, healthy and at times unusual food. We discovered the wisdom of Jane Brody together and have searched out many a recipe containing olives or capers. My cookbooks are filled with notations such as made this with Christie or recommended by Christie and I have a large pile of recipe clippings that she's sent me from the New York Times. Each of our visits has been a chance to experiment with something new or show off a recent success.

This New Years was no exception. On December 30 Bill and I headed down the highway to spend the holiday with Christie and her husband Jay. When we walked into the house savory rosemary pecans and spicy olives were awaiting us, with sherry and white wine to drink. Before much time had passed Christie and I began to discuss our New Year's Eve menu. We tossed around a few ideas and looked thru cookbooks and clippings. And we came up with a fabulous meal to celebrate the old and anticipate the new. Here's the menu:

Chicken with Capers and Lemons

Roasted Carrots and Parsnips

Green Goddess Salad

Strawberries and Pecans Flambe'

And of course, French champagne. Make that 2 bottles.

Below you'll find some recipes. As many of us enter the gloomy, bitter, dark months of winter, I recommend inviting a few friends over to share this meal, guaranteed to chase away the doldrums. Happy New Year!

Chicken with Capers and Lemons (serves 4)

Roasted Lemons:

3 medium lemons, scrubbed, thinly sliced and seeded

1 teaspoon olive oil

1/8 teaspoon sea salt or more to taste

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and arrange the lemons in a single layer. Brush lemons with oil and sprinkle with salt. Roast until slightly dry and beginning to turn brown around the edges, about 30 minutes.


Boneless, skinless, thinly sliced chicken breast halves, about 1 pound

1/8 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/4 cup all purpose flour

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 1/4 cups fat free, lower sodium chicken broth

3/4 cup white wine

2 tablespoons rinsed and drained capers

2 teaspoons unsalted butter

3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, divided

Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper. Dredge in flour to coat both sides. Shake off excess flour. In a large nonstick skillet, heat the oil over medium high heat. Add chicken and cook until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Add chicken broth and wine and bring to a boil, scraping up any browned bits. Cook until liquid has thickened, about 5 to 8 minutes, turning chicken halfway.

Add roasted lemons, capers, butter, 2 tablespoons parsley and more pepper if desired. Simmer until butter melts and chicken is cooked through, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a serving platter, sprinkle with remaining parsley and serve.

Green Goddess Salad (we used a recipe from the New York Times, available online)

Sauteed Pecans with Strawberries Flambe' (from Bragg Pecans in Hondo, Texas) serves 4

1/3 cup pecan or other nut oil

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

1/2 cup brandy

1 cup fresh pecans

1 pound fresh strawberries, washed, hulled and sliced

1 quart vanilla ice cream

Saute pecans in oil with the brown sugar until sugar is dissolved and begins to bubble. Add strawberries and warm through. Add brandy, ignite, stand back and SCREAM! Allow alcohol to completely burn off and serve over ice cream.