07-31-09: Get On Board the 'Kitchen Express' with Mark Bittman : Brilliant, Brief and Easy Recipes for All Seasons
We're in a fascinating era for cookbooks, when the tried-and-true formulas for how one crafts a cookbook are coming apart at the seams. But then our eating patterns are as well, as years of fast food and take-out food abuse seem to be getting ratcheted back because the former is clearly expensive garbage and the latter is merely really expensive. Especially compared to what you can cook at home, both in terms of speed and cost. So think of how nice it would be to have a cache of recipes you could prepare in 20 minutes of less. That's actually faster than so-called "fast food."
Mark Bittman has the answer in 'Mark Bittman 's Kitchen Express' (Simon & Schuster ; July 7, 2009 ; $26), probably the best $26 you can spend on food this year. You get 404 recipes, divided by season. But here's the real catch. Each recipe is one short paragraph, including ingredients and they all take about 20 minutes to prepare from start to finish. Most of the ingredients are easily found in your average neighborhood grocery store, and many of the recipes fall on the light but hearty side of the equation. This is superb cookbook that you'll use often out of the box, and return to often as well.
But let me just roll out the two meals I've made thus far. Here's the first thing I made a couple of nights ago. When I told my wife and son what I was making, they were, to say the least dubious, but we ate every last bit of the food and loved it.
Sausage and Grape Brushcetta
Red grapes are prettier here
Squeeze two Italian sausages from their casings and break the meat into a hot skillet with a little olive oil and a chopped red onion. Cook, stirring once in a while, until browned all over. Meanwhile, cut several thick slices of good Italian bread, brush with olive oil and toast or broil until crisp outside but tender inside. When the sausage is done, stir in about a pound of grapes, mashing a bit to break some of them up. Cook until just warmed through. Top the bread with the sausage mixture and pan juices."
This is a totally outstanding meal; we all loved it. I used red grapes, as directed, and used one mild sweet Italian sausage and one hot spicy Italian sausage. I splashed in some Marsala wine. The bread I used was an Italian olive loaf from Gayle's; I drizzled it with olive oil and grilled it on the griddle of my gas stovetop. To my mind, this might make a great appetizer as well, but serve with a salad and you have a nice dinner; sweet, tart, savory, and relatively cheap, as well as faster than fast food.
Middle Eastern Pizza
Also known as lahmacun
Mix together about half a pound of ground lamb, a chopped onion, a chopped tomato (canned is fine), some minced garlic, a couple of tablespoons tomato paste, some chopped fresh mint, salt and pepper. Spread a thin layer on pocketless pita or lavash bread; bake at 450F for 8 minutes, or until lamb is fully cooked. Sprinkle with lemon juice and serve."
Once again, we all loved it and ate every bit. I used 3/4 lb of ground lamb and two smallish fresh tomatoes; otherwise cooked as directed. I used lavash bread and it ended up being about the size of a cookie sheet. While it cooked, I took some spinach leaves and tossed them with a bit of olive oil and white wine and salt and pepper. Just before / when it was done, I took the pizza out of the over, put the spinach on top, put one leftover small tomato sliced, on top, some feta, then put it back in for about three minutes, until the spinach was wilted. It's just wonderful.
Both dishes also fulfilled the important task of making the house smell good. And both took less than 20 minutes of prep time, though I took much longer, because I like to stretch things out. I lay out each bit then go read while I consider the next part. But in a pinch, both are easily made and cooked faster than you could go out and fetch some wretched dog-food tacos from Taco Smell, and at a significantly lower cost. There are a lot more recipes in here I'm going to try and I'll report back to you periodically.
Beyond 404 single-paragraph recipes organized by season, Bittman provides a lot of nice indexing options; there are lists of the easiest recipes, recipes for hot sandwiches, stuff to toss with pasta, for picnics, do-ahead for pot lucks, for reheating, recipes, oh this is to die for — leaving the kitchen clean! — finger food, stuff that doubles as an appetizer, brown bag lunches, desserts for the entire year and breakfasts and brunches for the entire year. The actual index is quite thorough as well, allowing you to look up recipes just based on main ingredients; you'll find Middle Eastern Pizza under lamb, pizza and Middle East. All in all this is a superb cookbook that'll save you time, money and get used. Mostly it will give you lots of ideas of how to cook, how to free yourself from the stringent measurement of ingredients. It's small, and there are no pictures of the food, but the format — four or so paragraphs / recipes per page — is really easily to deal with. Bottom line is, if you cook at home, this will help. A lot.
07-30-09: 'Never Slow Dance With A Zombie' in 'My Rotten Life' : Quick, Somebody Write a Thick-As-A-Brick Teen Zombies in Love Series!
Zombies, apparently, are the new vampires. Forget Edward, or whatever the hell his name is. Margot Jean Johnson and Nathan Abercrombie are our new, hip and sort of rotting idols. Maybe it's time for Alice Cooper to re-release his famous single, "I Love the Dead." Whatever may happen, you can be sure it will happen in triplicate, with more hangers-on than innovators. Funny how the art sort of reflects the monsters; one gets bitten, then hip, then everyone else wants to be a rotting corpse, too. Or better still, to write about them in a manner appropriate for 10 to 19-year olds and the adults who only wish they could be that young again.
Let's get this straight from the get-go. These aren't the kind of zombies that would inspire an article in Reader's Digest magazine, lamenting the state of morality that produces such garbage. I remember reading that article and pretty much agreeing with it when I was but a tyke and George Romero's Night of the Living Dead came out. And in retrospect, yes, those zombies were in fact worthy of worry, fear and ultimately, dread. They were a vivid reminder of what we all become unless we have the bucks deluxe to join Walt Disney and L. Ron Hubbard in cryonic suspension in a bomb-proof bunker under Disneyland. The NOTLD zombies were authentically scary and still are, even now, when re-re-animated in a newer, faster (not necessarily) better version. Sprinting corpses, shambling corpses, as far as I'm concerned the whole post-death reminder remains the most important element in that particular fearful symmetry.
But now zombies, like vampires, have to be hot. Which is apparently not so much of a problem even though they are by definition cold. In the first wave of YA zombie fiction, (I think), you can expect 'Never Slow Dance With a Zombie' (Tor Teen / Tor ; September 2009 ; $8.99) by Emmy-nominated TV scribe E. Van Lowe, and 'My Rotten Life' (Starscape / Tor ; August 2009 ; $5.99) by the Weenies-creating Dave Lubar. The former is aimed straight at middle-schoolers, while the latter is more for the precocious elementary school set. But both put re-animated rotting corpses front, center and not surprisingly, friendly.
Maybe more than friendly in 'Never Slow Dance With a Zombie.' The premise here is that Margot Jean Johnson's school is overrun by zombies, thus forcing some changes in the curriculum. Margot and her best friend Sybil find themselves in the unusual position of not being good enough to be turned into zombies. Talk about per pressure, this is a whole new level. Van Lowe's high-school nightmare is a pretty fun read even for adults, especially if you were one of the folks who would not be good enough to get turned. The joy in these sorts of books is to see how the "Da Rulz" are worked out, to see how turning folks into zombies fits the world of high-school cliques and bad cafeteria food. Assuming the remaining humans don't become bad high school food. Do note that Van Lowe totally dates himself when he uses the phrase, "Same bat time, same bat channel." The zombie children of Adam West shall soon rule the literary world!
For my money, I'm actually a bit more fond of 'My Rotten Life' which takes a rather different zombie-istic tack. Here, the elementary school reject Nathan Abercrombie spends a good few pages getting as it were, shat upon by the hoity-toity. But one day Weird Abigail, feeling grateful for the one time that Nathan actually smiled at her, some months ago, takes Nathan over to the Moreau Research Lab of the local college to meet her Uncle Zardo, who's made a Hurts-No-More serum. There's a little accident and before you know it, well, Nathan is a little bit dead. Just a little bit. Complications ensue. Lubar writes smart, snappy prose, and living-dead shtick is a somewhat better fit for the pre-teen set. Besides, I adore the DO NOT DISTURB thingie that came with my ARC.
Either of these books are going to be on the cutting, slicing and dicing edge of what you want to give kids to read, so buy early and taint the minds young. Raise us up some more gods-damned weird fiction readers, the sort of kids who will "grow up" and read H. P. Lovecraft, why doncha? Buy 'em these books, but what you really want to keep your eyes out for are the next-gen zombie books. They're going to be about three inches thick, and full of unrequited living-dead love. Even as I write this, some suburban mom or dad who watched one too many Fulci movies in their formative college years is busily penning this series, ready to leap from obscurity to overnight success. Rising from the dead, as it were.
07-29-09: Go 'Starcombing' With David Langford : New Hope for the Dead
Sometimes it's hard to believe that we're actually living in the future. The 21st century seems so much like the 20th — only worse — that one might contemplate that the temporal flow made a U-turn some years ago and none of us noticed, caught up, as we all are in the flow.
But if we need hard evidence that the future has arrived, here we have it in David Langford's 'Starcombing' (Cosmos Books / Wildside Press ; June 2009 ; $29.95 / $14.95). The whole damn thing is post-millennial and that I suppose, will have to do when it comes to proof of the future having arrived. But with Langford, the time frame is not important; it’s what's in the frame that matters.
In this case, you've got a collection of 85 short essays, columns articles, reviews and short-short stories from Nature magazine, arranged chronologically. Those pieces that were previously published are given attributions at the end of the article, and (entertainingly when it happens) often a bit more. Langford covers pretty much everything, from the ostensible origins of the name "Al Qaeda" in science fiction to "Hogwarts Proctology Class: Probing the End of Harry Potter," a speech about Langford's travails in the potted world of Potteriana. And he does so with the wit and panache you can find in his ansible newsletter.
'Starcombing' features a selection of Langford's columns for SFX, as well as reviews and appreciations of greats in the genre. Langford's strength for readers of science fiction is his ability to see them as others see them, to view the world of science fiction from without and from within. But Langford, for all his wonderful snark, that light-hearted, sharply-barbed approach that makes everything so much fun to read, is also a smart, serious critic. He can speak with equal aplomb about the merits of Ursula K. Leguin's Earthsea trilogy and using Lulu.com to self-publish 'The Apricot Files.' He knows the readers' hearts because he has a reader's heart. That matters. It gives the book a personal, intimate feel. Reading 'Starcombing' is like a trolling your memories for the best conversations you've ever had about the books you love to read and the reasons you do so — even when so many books in the genre fall victim to Sturgeon's Law.
I particularly liked finding the short stories for Nature slotted in here and there. There's a certain, "Huh, what the hell?!?" reaction that ensues when one encounters nuggets of fiction amidst a sea of snarky, smart criticism that really feels right. Langford is so immersed in our world, so connected to every writer and book in our world that he seems to become us, to read our minds. And who better to read our minds in this unfortunate future than the man whose story "Gigatech" begins .....
You never get the future you expect."
07-28-09: Kenneth W. Faig, Jr. Unveils 'The Unknown Lovecraft' : Essays as Biography
H. P. Lovecraft is a problem. Yes, he's been anointed by the American Library edition of his work. If he's not part of the canon at least they've let his work reside in the same stacks. But the man himself is another matter entirely, almost as problematic as his work. Flashes of brilliance are intercut with slabs the overly-earnest and sometimes embarrassing. He's strange, shrinking and not particularly sympathetic. In short, he's human.
If you think you know something about H. P. Lovecraft, you may be right — but chances are that there is much you do not know. Readers wanting to explore the life of a renowned and weird-as-his-fiction writer can learn a lot from 'The Unknown Lovecraft' (Hippocampus Press ; August 2009 ; $20), a collection of essays by Lovecraft scholar Kenneth W. Faig, Jr. For Lovecraft's most compulsive readers, this book is a must-buy, but even the casual reader can benefit from these essays that dig into the nooks and crannies of very peculiar creative intelligence.
'The Unknown Lovecraft' is a not an A-z bio, but rather a series of essays that hone in on different aspects of Lovecraft's life and work. Faig is particularly interested in Lovecraft's family history, both in fact ("Lovecraft's Parental Hertiage" and "Whipple V. Phllips and the Owyhee Land and Irrigation Company") and in Lovecraft's fiction ("Quae Amamus Tuemur: Ancestor's in Lovecraft's Life and Fiction"). The title-bearing essays, "The Unknown Lovecraft I: Political Operative" and "The Unknown Lovecraft II: Reluctant Laureate" offer detailed insights into Lovecraft's participation in politics, while "Lovecraft's 'He'," "'The Silver Key' and Lovecraft's Childhood" and "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" mix literary insights with biographical information. Two essays touch on Lovecraft's literary executor, Robert H. Barlow.
The Hippocampus trade paperback is sturdy enough and entirely frill-free, but the curious and the compulsive who need this book are quite likely to share Lovecraft's ascetic aesthetic. Frills will get you nowhere. But words, especially these, can do the heavy lifting.
07-27-09: A Review of 'Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex' by Mary Roach: Sexstalt
Buy it for the jokes, for the insane anecdotes in footnotes that you'll read to anyone who will listen. Buy it for the actually useful information that you might need to use every day — or night. Buy it because it is a joy to read and that sort of joy is all too uncommon, no matter what the genre may be.
There are a lot of reasons to buy 'Bonk' and most of them have to do with immediate, hands-on reading pleasure. It's funny as hell, funnier than any comedy has any right to be, even though it’s non-fiction. It's informative and useful, with practical hands-on advice for the harried citizens of the 21st century. It's got more great stories of brave souls fighting the good fight, and sorta scary stories of weirdoes who should be sequestered far, far away from the rest of us, most of whom think of themselves as the guardians of propriety and good behavior. But the real reason to buy 'Bonk' is that there's an afterimage, an understated overview that forms as you read this wonderful book. You can read my in-depth review by following this link.