Project 2015 Wrap up: Things I learned

As my first yearly project draws to a close, here’s what I learned about my reading habits, in no particular order.

  1. I like science fiction much better than I thought I did, though mostly if it’s written by women. I’ve always gravitated to fantasy in the past, but I found myself really enjoying the science fiction selections I read (see: Melissa Scott, CJ Cherryh, C.S. Friedman).
  2. …and I think part of that is because I really, really love some good political intrigue (see: Finder, Foreigner, In Conquest Born).
  3. I would like crime fiction and noir to stay far, far from my specfic. I think I gave it a good shot, but it’s just not my thing. This crosses over into my other media consumption, actually, because the best way to turn me off from a SFF premise is to make it a crime procedural. (I’m looking at you, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) (See: short stories from Dangerous Women.)
  4. It turns out I was right – I don’t particularly care for short fiction. Even the best short stories I read were slightly unsatisfying. All remaining anthologies in my TBR were sold to Half Price Books, and now I know not to buy anymore.
  5. A lot of what I (tried) to read was very, very problematic, in ways that I wouldn’t have recognized if I’d read it when it was published. I think this is a combination of both the world moving on and my own evolving understanding. In this case, the Suck Fairy visited preemptively.
  6. I hate writing reviews. Early on in the project, I was pushing myself to write a cogent, useful review for every book I read. This was perhaps the hardest part of the project. In the end, I dropped that “requirement,” and never missed it. I definitely do not have a future as a book reviewer.
  7. I’m still not a particularly critical reader, and I think I’m okay with that. There are a lot of critical reviewers and theorists out there, and I adore reading their dissection of what I’ve read – once I’m done with it. But I prefer to read through for enjoyment first. This may be a character failing, but I’ve come to accept it.

This was definitely a good outing for my first yearly project, and I’m glad I did it. I learned a lot about my reading preferences that will hopefully guide me in future purchases. As an added benefit, I now have a dedicated bookshelf for my TBR – and it miraculously fits all my books. (Though there’s also my unread ebooks … and unlistened to audiobooks …)

Eating History 2: Peach Glazed Pork Chops

In 2014 and 2015, I inherited recipes written by the women in my family, including my mother, grandmother and great grandmother. Based on the dates they were alive, these recipes likely span from 1900-1985.  I’m making them by following the original instructions as closely as I can. This is my history.

This week’s recipe seemed like a sure bet – just glazed pork chops, after all, but ended up giving me a fair number of problems.  I often rail against recipes that specify “reduced-sodium soy sauce,” for example. I figure that if I am following a reduced sodium diet, that’s what I’ll have on hand, and I don’t really need to be directed to do so unless it makes a marked difference to the recipe. Sometimes, it does…

PeachPork_00

The first question I faced here is “what kind of pork chops?” Could be loin chops, could be bone-in or boneless, could be thick or thin cut.  Looking at the specified cooking time, I hazarded a guess that it could be bone-in, medium cut chops (which tend to cook longer).

There’s another choice that the original cook would not have to make that I did: I had to make sure to get sliced peaches in heavy syrup – not light syrup, not “water with no sugar added,” not 100% juice. None of those would have created a good glaze.

PeachPork_01

You see that jar of ketchup (or “catsup,” per the recipe)? It very definitely does not still have a 1/4 cup worth of ketchup in it. This was not ideal.

I had to make a number of assumptions about the recipe to make this one work, and they didn’t all pan out as I’d hoped. The first problem was that my baking pan (a standard 9×13) was far too small for 6 bone-in chops – much less the 7 I actually had. I chose to layer the chops, knowing as I did so that it wasn’t the best solution, but that’s what I had.

I also failed to brown them quite as well as I should have – a known problem when I try to sear meat. Together, these meant that the chops gave off a lot of liquid while cooking, so much so that I lost about 1/4 cup of stuffing when I spooned it between the chops.

PeachPork_08

If I were to make this again, I’d make the following changes:

  • substitute boneless chops and significantly reduce the cooking time, perhaps even by half for the first cooking, then until they reached a safe (160F) temp for the second cooking.

It tasted great, even if the stuffing ended up being a little moist. I think with the right meat and the right sized pan this could be quite good. It reheated about as well as you can expect pork to – which is sort of meh. If I had seared the meat a little better, they might have been less dry. It feels like I’m damning with faint praise here, but this really was quite good.

 

Cheesy Tuna Noodle Casserole*

(Makes 6 servings)

  • 6 pork chops
  • 1 T oil
  • 1 can diced peaches in heavy syrup
  • 1/4 c firmly packed brown sugar
  • 1/4 c “catsup”
  • 2 T vinegar**
  • 1 1/2 c very hot water
  • 1/2 stick margarine (1/4 cup)
  • 1 box Stove Top stuffing

Season chops with salt and pepper, brown well in oil on medium. Place in shallow baking dish. Drain peaches and reserve syrup. Heat 1/3 c syrup, sugar, vinegar, and catsup in pan. [Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer and stir continuously until the liquid reaches the consistency of a glaze and has reduced to roughly half volume.] Brush part of glaze on meat. Bake at 350F for 35 min.

Meanwhile, make stuffing, spoon between chops after baking, arrange fruit around chops & brush w/ remaining glaze. Bake 20 min. longer.

*I’ve cleaned up the recipe slightly by standardizing the abbreviations and adding information where it may be otherwise unclear (particularly the directions for the glaze). Everything else is as it was written.

**I used white wine vinegar.

(Next week: “Ethel Miller’s Casserole!”)

 

 

Eating History 1: Cheesy Tuna Noodle Casserole

In 2014 and 2015, I inherited recipes written by the women in my family, including my mother, grandmother and great grandmother. Based on the dates they were alive, these recipes likely span from 1900-1985.  I’m making them by following the original instructions as closely as I can. This is my history.

I must admit, for my first foray I’m taking the safe route. I already have a tuna casserole recipe I enjoy, and it isn’t as if putting tuna, cheese, and noodles together and then baking it would be new to our palates. It also has the advantage of being made out of ingredients that still exist, something that can’t be said for all of the recipes I have.

TunaCasserole09

I admit I was a little concerned about “shred process Am cheese.” Processed cheese is not (other than as a Velveeta brick) something I remember seeing. However, Kraft has apparently introduced shredded Velveeta just in time for me to be able to make tuna casserole.

TunaCasserole01

One thing I noticed in particular is that there is no fresh dairy used in this recipe, or indeed, many others I have. I call this “war cooking”, though it might just as easily have been depression cooking. This looks like my grandmother’s handwriting. She was born in 1918, so this may very well have been during WWII when my grandfather was overseas.

The recipe itself is not particularly difficult, though to my modern sensibilities it is oddly involved for something as pedestrian as tuna casserole. It starts with sauteing onions and then adding flour to make a roux. The evaporated milk is added slowly along with water and then the cheese is stirred in, to make a much creamier and fancier sauce than my usual method.

After stirring everything up, I was half-convinced I had botched the roux, based on how runny it was. Once it baked, however, the sauce thickened into a nice creamy base. It held up well in leftovers too, without soaking into the noodles too much.

If I were to make this again, I’d make the following changes:

  • substitute fresh milk for the evaporated milk+water
  • substitute cubed Velveeta for the cheese mixed into the sauce, and shredded cheddar for the cheese garnish

Overall, it was a great recipe to start with: a familiar taste with familiar ingredients. Check out the gallery for some process photos, including the photo no one ever shows: the view of the kitchen after the cooking is done! (Hover over a photo to see the caption.)

Cheesy Tuna Noodle Casserole*

(Makes 6 servings)

  • 1/3 c chopped onion
  • 2 T margarine
  • 2T flour
  • 1 can evaporated milk
  • 3/4 c water
  • 1 1/4 c shredded Processed American cheese
  • 1 1/2 t worcestershire sauce
  • 3/4 t seasoned salt
  • 10 oz canned flaked tuna, drained
  • 1 c cooked peas, drained
  • 3 c cooked noodles, drained

Saute onions in margarine in med saucepan. Stir in flour. Gradually add evaporated milk and water. Cook over med heat til boils, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Add 1c cheese**, worcestershire sauce, and seasoned salt. Stir until cheese is melted. Combine cheese sauce, tuna, peas, and noodles in casserole dish. Sprinkle with remaining cheese. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 min.

*I’ve cleaned up the recipe slightly by standardizing the abbreviations and adding information where it may be otherwise unclear. Everything else is as it was written.

**I have no idea why “cheese” is underlined in the recipe, but there you are.

 

Sky-Tinted Waters mini-reviews

For anthologies, I’ll be adding my thoughts about each story or essay here on the site. You can find the full review on GoodReads (if that’s not a link, I haven’t finished the book yet.)

For Sky-Tinted Waters, I went in completely blind – I haven’t even looked at the table of contents. To be fair, though, this book ended up in my hands because a friend has a story published in it, so I’ll get to that … somewhere, I’m sure.
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Six Months In

It’s been about six months since I began the first year of my “Grand Life Plan” by reading as many books on my TBR as I can. Here are my thoughts so far, in no particular order:

  • I’m not going to make it. I always knew I wouldn’t make it to all 122 books read in a year, but I thought I would get a little closer than I am. In six months, I’ve read 36 books (33 of them from my TBR). If I keep it up, I’ll have read roughly half of what I have sitting around.
  • I’m really impatient about getting to read new books. While I mostly love (or at least enjoy) what I’m reading, it’s hard to be reading books from several years or decades ago. All my friends are talking about hot new books – I want to read them too!
  • I like a good helping of political intrigue in my fantasy and science fiction. One of the biggest surprises for me so far was In Conquest Born, which I flatly adored. I knew that I liked politics, as shown by my love for Kate Elliot and Jacqueline Carey, among others, but this really drove it home. It’s something I’m going to start looking for as an indication that I’d probably enjoy a book.
  • There’s a subgenre of “female-penned science fiction of the 80’s and 90’s”. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but consider: C.S. Friedman, Melissa Scott, Emma Bull, C.J. Cherryh. They all “taste” the same to me. It’s a sub-genre I really like.
  • I’m probably not going to read all those Book 2’s. Other works by Tanya Huff. The trilogy after Obsidian Mountain. Book 2 of Lord of the Isles. I often buy Book 1 of a series that I want to see if I enjoy, thinking I’ll go get Book 2 if I do. Sometimes it works (Kushiel’s Dart, Daughter of the Blood). But with books this old that have sat unread for so long, I’m just not motivated to keep reading if they tie up well. Strongly related to wanting to move on to new books, I suspect.
  • I’m finally old enough to stop reading books I don’t like. There was a time I couldn’t not finish a series, much less an individual book. But with 122 books lined up, I’ve learned to be a bit more discriminating. DNF’ed so far this year: The Power of Myth, Aphrodite’s Daughters, and A Heart for Freedom. All for, in some way, values that I find outdated and offensive. I just realized typing this up that those are all non-fiction, so I may still have trouble letting fiction go.
  • I’ve given 1 book a 5-star rating: The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. However, I’ve rated 12 books 4 stars. I apparently really hesitate to give out that “superlative” rating.
  • I’m actually “reading” audiobooks. I don’t know that I’d enjoy reading fiction audiobooks, because the voices really bug me. However, I really enjoyed listening to A Heart For Freedom, and I’m now listening to Whose Bible Is It? Of course, this have lead to another “TBR” pile.
  • One of the reasons for my slow pace is that I need breathing space after completing a book. I can’t just finish a book and immediately pick another one up. I do usually pick it out, and put it on my smaller pile of what I’m actively reading, but many books leave me with a “mental aftertaste” I want to savor.
  • I kind of suck at writing reviews. I wish I didn’t, but I never really know what to say in reviews. A lot of people seem to start theirs with a summary of the plot or theme, but that seems like a waste of time to me. Did you read the blurb? Okay, then. The only time I really highlight what the book is actually about is when I think the cover/summary information leaves out a key point or is otherwise misleading. Other than that, I tend to pick out the bits I particularly liked (or disliked). Writing spoiler-free reviews sometimes means these are incredibly short.
  • I may not actually like short fiction. Dangerous Women was the first anthology I picked out to read. According to GoodReads, I started it on March 15, and I’ve yet to finish it. On the other hand, I quite liked Bone and Jewel Creatures and Portrait of Lisane de Patagnia, so perhaps the fault is not in the format…

Media and Cultural Stories

(This was topical when I started writing it; it’s less so now that I’ve finally finished it. However, since the debate seems cyclical, it will unfortunately probably be topical again in the future.)

The Importance of Storytelling

I’ve always been a fan of stories, and I’m not too picky about how they’re told to me. I read, of course, voraciously and widely, though speculative fiction is my home (more on that in a bit). When I play video games, I play for the story; combat is something that happens in between story bits. When I listen to music, clever lyrics or a good ballad will light up my face. Movies, comics, anime, fanfiction … it all comes back to loving and emotionally investing in the story the creator is trying to tell.

Emotional investment is the value of stories. They make us think, but mostly they make us care. There’s a reason the Eight Deadly Words are “I don’t care what happens to these people,” not “I am not intellectually curious about the plot.” In the first level of caring about something, we care because it speaks to us: because something in the story resonates with our own lived stories.

At another level, stories speak to more than just our personal stories. I can read and appreciate stories about redheaded super-intelligent people in a futuristic setting (hi, Heinlein!), but I can also read and appreciate stories about a reluctant revolutionary out to change a horrible, dystopian future (hi, Katniss!). So our media does more than tell personal stories; it tells us stories about our communities and our cultures. But you knew that, because not every piece of media you consume is about people just like you.

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Creation vs. Consumption

There’s this idea going around that we create, curate, or consume*. Implicit in this assumption for many is that that list is in descending order of importance – or even virtue. It’s most virtuous, of course, to create. Who doesn’t want to be a creator? And if you can’t (or don’t want to) create, then at least curate, which involves actively engaging with the media. If nothing else – if you simply can’t be bothered – then you can consume. But we (the intelligent, the connected) are going to think you’re just a wee bit less smart than we are. Nothing personal. You still have time to go and create something, you know.

If you can’t write a video game, then at least you curate your collection based on data that would be of the most public good. If you can’t even do that, then I guess you can play a video game, but wouldn’t it be a better use of your time to ride a bike? (Insert your medium of choice here)

Setting aside the sheer falseness of this hierarchy of public good**, let’s just concentrate on “creating.” What do you need to create? An idea and (optionally) skill. Where do you get ideas? Inside your head. Where do you get skills? From first watching, then practicing.

Oh.

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