Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Secret Lives

Author: Diane Chamberlain
Type: Kindle e-book
Source: Own
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Publisher: Harper Collins
First Published: 1991
First Line: "Eden Swift Riley was good at pretending."

Book DescriptionActress Eden Riley's decision to make a film about the mother she barely knew plunges her into a shattering confrontation with her own past. Through her mother's journal, Eden discovers a life of hardship, madness and secrets. Shifting gracefully between Eden's world and that of her mother, Secret Lives seduces with the power of its images and the lyricism of its prose.

My ThoughtsThis is not my first book by Ms Chamberlain.  Last year I read and reviewed another of Chamberlain's books (The Good Father -- see my review HERE) and enjoyed it.   She has a knack of writing interesting storylines with just the right amount of twists to keep the reader interested. "Secret Lives" is an easy and engaging read told via multiple storylines about familial secrets and people running from their pasts.

While this is an easy read it does deal with a few very serious topics.  There's mystery, dark family secrets, child abuse and forbidden love.  This book deals with these, sensitive issues believably and I didn't feel salaciously.  That said, some of these topics may shock more sensitive readers.  I will admit that a few scenes made me inwardly cringe based on the subject matter.  Let's just say that I'm not sure that I would have read the book if I had known that it dealt with these very sensitive topics.  There are just some issues that I don't want to read about.

So what did I think of the characters?  They were hit and miss with me.  On the one had I adored Katherine.  She is a unique and very misunderstood young woman.  What helped me really get to know her were the additions of excerpts from the journals she kept as a teen and young woman.  You get a very personal and in-depth feel for her character as well as her inner struggles with her debilitating anxiety disorder that has plagued her entire life.  Chamberlain's descriptions of Katherine's anxiety were vivid and sensitively written making them almost painful to read.   My heart broke for this poor misunderstood woman who tried so hard to overcome her disorder.

In stark contrast, I really didn't love Eden and didn't have sympathy for her plight. At times, she felt overly naïve for a woman of her age, occupation and status.  This seemed very disjointed with who she was (a famous actress - a la Julia Roberts, I'm assuming) and it frustrated me. I didn't feel that she realistically portrayed a successful and famous actress.  Also, her sudden romance with a new man in her life felt rushed, a little desperate and unbelievable that this woman would throw everything away for a guy she just met.  Gratuitous sex scenes were added to spice things up but didn't add to the storyline for me.

Ben was a decent leading man; a handsome man with a dark past. Personally, I'm not sure that I could have looked past his issues but I did appreciate the tension that that author created as she slowly let the reader in on Ben's secret.  Chamberlain is quite good at adding the tension and mystery to her storylines without losing the interest of her readers.  That said, I wasn't too shocked when I finally found out about his big secret but it didn't really stop me from enjoying the ride. 

The only major beef that I had with this book is the conclusion to Ben's issues.  These issues plagued the man throughout the book.  They destroyed his life and yet were resolved very quickly and wrapped up much too easily at the very end of the book.  When I read a book, I love for the momentum to continue right up to the end and sadly this book didn't.  It skidded to a stop and ended with everyone being all happy.  Nice but not very realistic.

Diane Chamberlain has a knack for writing books that keep the reader interested.  While she did throw in several big reveals into the storylines, overall I felt like the book was fairly predictable and towards the end I knew how it was going to end. 

This is not a literary work of art but it is a nice, enjoyable afternoon read.  It wasn't jaw dropping in its reveals and its main character left a lot to be desired but the honest portrayal of Katherine's character truly made this book for me.  While this isn't my favourite book from Diane Chamberlain, I do plan to read many more of her books.

My Rating: 3/5 stars

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Fast Food Vindication: The Story You Haven't Been Told


Author: Lisa Tillinger Johansen, MS, RD
Type: e-book ARC
Source: NetGalley
Genre: Non-Fiction
Publisher: J. Murray Press
Publication Date: October 4, 2012
First Line: "Do you eat at fast food restaurants?"

Note: My sincere thanks to NetGalley and J. Murray Press for providing me with a complimentary e-book copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Publisher's DescriptionFor years, dozens of books, documentaries, and magazine articles have targeted the fast food industry as the cause for many of society’s ills, ranging from the obesity epidemic to the proliferation of dead-end jobs. Now, hospital dietitian Lisa Johansen makes the bold case that the fast food industry is actually a positive force in society.

Johansen takes the reader from the industry’s scrappy, entrepreneurial beginnings to its emergence as a global business generating hundreds of billions of dollars annually. Far from a blight on society, the fast food industry has distinguished itself by providing a product that meets high standards of quality and safety, often healthier than meals served at home and in sit-down restaurants. The myth of the “McJob” is debunked by true-life cases of corporate titans who succeeded by virtue of the fast-food chains’ practice of promoting from within. And, relying on her years of counseling patients at one of the nation’s largest health networks, Johansen shows the reader just how easily fast food can be incorporated into a healthy lifestyle.

Lively and informative, FAST FOOD VINDICATION destroys the media myths and paints the true picture of an industry that touches the lives of millions.

My Thoughts:  My devoted blog followers know that normally I'm not an avid reader of non-fiction.  It's not that I don't care for the genre but if I'm going to read a non-fiction book I have to really be interested in the topic. 

When I saw this book on NetGalley with its giant burger on the front it definitely got my attention.  Sure, I do love me a good burger but this book's unique take on fast food piqued my interest for other reasons. 

Before I review this book I want to inform you that I have a lot of experience and connections with McDonald's Canada.  Without divulging too much information about me (I like to keep my life private and mysterious here on the blog -- you know, like Batman), I want to let you know that my family is very invested in McDonald's.  Like, 'Big Mac sauce pretty much runs through my veins' invested.  My father is a successful Canadian McDonald's franchisee whom I've worked for in the past as crew and management and I have recently gone back to work for him.  Yup, I'm a McKid.  And I'm lovin' it.  I also met my husband while working at McDonald's and I'm very proud to be associated with this corporation.

Note: To the followers who personally know my family and I please refrain from mentioning personal facts about myself and/or my family, our location in Ontario and our specific connection to McDonald's in order to keep my private life just that, private.  Thanks.

I'm not the only one with an admittedly close connection to McDonald's.  Ms Tillenger Johansen, the author of this book, also has a long history with McDonald's in the US and it's her connection to the fast food giant as well as her new career as a registered dietician that really drew me to this book.  I found it interesting that she can see both sides of the issue and can back up her statements with experience and knowledge.

There were two topics in this book that I was really drawn to.  First, how McDonald's (and fast food in general) has been denigrated in the press regarding their perceived negative influence on society, specifically the increase in obesity.  Second, for obvious personal reasons, how fast food jobs are viewed as the epitome of a 'dead end' job.

There is no question that there is an obesity epidemic in North America.  The author clearly proves this fact by providing statistics which are jaw-dropping.
  • approximately two-thirds of adults 20 years and older in the USA are overweight or obese
  • it's projected that 42% of Americans could be obese by the year 2030.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that by the year 2015 (in a mere two years) there will be more than 2 billion overweight people around the world.
Those statistics are shocking and saddening. 

Some people are adamant that the fast food industry is the main culprit.  But is that a fair and accurate statement?  The author advises the reader to take a wider look at the issue.  By focusing on fast food as the only culprit are we then minimizing or totally ignoring the other issues (as well as possible solutions) that affect the health and weight of North Americans?

No one is going to argue that fast food doesn't provide some high calorie snacks and meals.  But they also have healthier choices.  Ms Tillinger Johansen points out that the onus of what people eat should be put squarely on the individual.  No one forces us to eat deep-fried chicken at KFC or a Whopper at Burger King instead of choosing a grilled chicken snack wrap with a side salad with low calorie dressing.  It's time people took control and responsibility for what they eat and how they care for their bodies.
 
It's not only specific meals that are the issue but the size of those meals. 
One of the things that I'm always shocked about when I visit some sit-down restaurants (especially in the US) are their huge servings. I'm talking 'I couldn't eat that meal in two sittings' kind of huge.  This fact was never more apparent than when we were visiting Fort Myers, FL this past February and my 11 year old son ordered a hot dog.  When it came to the table it was literally a two foot hot dog on a platter surrounded by a pile of wedge fries! Unfortunately excessively large serving sizes have become the norm and it has to take its fair share of the blame for obesity in adults and children alike. 

Many people believe that eating at a sit-down restaurant is a better and healthier choice.  But is it?  The author reminds the reader that their assumption may not be accurate.  In a sit-down restaurant they do not have as strict portion sizes and often suggest 'add-ons'.  For example, your server will often ask if you'd like to start with an appetizer.  Some restaurants provide baskets of bread and unlimited salad as well as refilling your drinks (often without prompting).  The meal is often followed by the server providing dessert suggestions to finish off their already large meal.  These additions to your meal can really add up when it comes to calories and fat content.

Do you think a meal salad at a sit down restaurant has lower fat and calories than a Big Mac? You may want to read the nutritional statements for that salad first. When you look at the fat content of that salad sometimes you're getting much more fat that you bargained for.  Not so healthy, so buyer beware!! My point? All you have to do is read the nutritional information about what you're putting on your fork to perhaps make you rethink what you choose to eat.

Now let's get to one of my biggest pet peeves -- the assumption that fast food industry perpetrates dead end jobs.  The author blows this claim out of the water as she illustrates how many of the top McDonald's executives began their successful careers at the bottom of the 'food chain' by serving customers and making burgers. 

I contacted McDonald's Canada head office for some Canadian stats to back up this author's claim.  McDonald's Canada staunchly believes in promoting from within -- 90 percent of restaurant managers and 50 percent of franchisees began in entry-level positions.  It's this firsthand knowledge of the inner workings of all positions within a restaurant that, I believe, help give those executives a better understanding and respect for the people who carry out the day-to-day operations.  More than 65 percent of McDonald's Canada's corporate staff began in crew level positions, including McDonald's Canada President and CEO John Betts who began his career 40 years ago as a crew person.

“I know first-hand what it’s like to start your first job working in the kitchen at McDonald’s. That’s how I got my start. It’s where I learned about teamwork and the importance of listening to customers’needs,” says Betts. “I regularly speak to students at colleges and universities, and I often share my story of how I went from crew to boardroom because I want young people to know they can find real opportunities to learn, grow and develop at McDonald’s. I take great pride in the fact that this company offers young people their first job opportunity. We set them up on the path to success whether they stay with us for a year or, like me, an entire career.”  [Source: 'McDonald's® Set To Serve Up More Than 6,000 Jobs in Canada on National Hiring Day' (McDonald's Media Relations)]

This has got to say something about the quality and dedication of the corporation towards encouraging and nurturing their staff to succeed within the company.  This is also evident if you visit their famous Hamburger University in Chicago where they host over 5,000 students every year in their 130,000 square foot facility where graduates obtain a 'Degree in Hamburgology'.  The quality of their training is so high that it's been deemed eligible for certain college credits in the USA and Britain.
 

"If you're going to take money out of a community, give something back. "
-- Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald's

Another topic that I loved in this book showcased how some of these fast food corporations give back to their communities.  Whether it's Dave Thomas of Wendy's who set up his 'Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption' or Taco Bell's association with the 'Boys and Girls Clubs of America' the author shows how various fast food chains give back.    

The author shows how McDonald's gives back in their own way.  Not only are they one of the biggest employers of youth but they have provided more than $2 million in employee scholarships for post-secondary education since 1985. 

But, by far, the biggest way McDonald's gives back to its communities is through their Ronald McDonald Houses.  I couldn't help but feel proud of the commitment McDonald's has to helping care for the families of sick children by providing these Houses near children's hospitals.  My family has provided meals to our local RMH in the past and the feeling you get when you enter a Ronald McDonald House is that of a home. It's full of people who care and who want these families to focus all their energy on their sick child. The food, shelter and support is provided for whatever amount of money they can afford ... and is often provided free of charge.  My point? Fast food isn't all about making burgers and the bottom line.

Overall I enjoyed this book and found it very informative even though many of the examples given were American (I had never heard of some of the American fast food chains mentioned). I'm hoping that this book will change people's view of the fast food industry as a negative force and that it will help people think about what they're eating and make healthier choices whether they're eating at home or at a restaurant. 

The book is filled with a lot of information but readers are provided with extra resources at the end of the book to help them navigate through all of the information.  Ms Tillenger Johansen helps her readers understand that with knowledge and self-discipline it's not difficult to incorporate nutritious fast food items occasionally into our daily, healthy lifestyles.

I came away from reading this book with a renewed desire to keep in mind what foods I make and order for my family whether we're at home or in a restaurant. It has also reminded me why I'm proud to be associated with the Golden Arches. I am proud of the corporation for what it stands for, how it encourages it's employees to succeed and how it helps within individual communities.

This was an enlightening read.  Recommended.

My Rating: 4/5 stars

Source: 'McDonald's® Set To Serve Up More Than 6,000 Jobs in Canada on National Hiring Day' (McDonald's Media Relations)

Note: Special thanks to McDonald's Canada Media Relations for providing me with some of the McDonald's Canada facts and stats.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Cheesy Buffalo Chicken Fries



There are certain flavours that I just can't stop myself from wanting to eat again and again.  My favourite flavour combo du jour combines Frank's 'Red Hot Buffalo Wing' sauce and blue cheese.  This weekend this culinary combo is the Will to my Kate, the PB to my J, morning coffee to my sanity.  In a sentence ... it completes me. 

Now, I'm not a fan of burn-your-face-off hot and spicy {I'm a wuss} but there's just something about the flavour and the right amount of heat that's in Frank's famous sauce.  The man has it going on when it comes to chicken wing sauce.  Oh ya.  Add in some fries and two kinds of ooey-gooey cheese and I'm in luurve.

With Brad and Boy 1 gone for the weekend {they're leading a Cub camp up north} I thought I'd just make something easy for Boy 2 and Missy Moo for supper and take some time to bring together my favourite flavours for my own fine self.  The two younger kids aren't fans of anything mildly spicy or remotely adventurous so I just made a smaller batch of this for moi.

Being that this dish has chicken (protein), green onions (veggies), potatoes (starch) and two kinds of cheese (dairy) I could easily convince myself that this was all I needed for supper.  With Frank's spicy hot sauce I also figured that just by eating this spicy sauce that I had to be burning off calories as I was eating.  My mind works in very mysterious ways.  Do not try to understand it.  With a little ingenuity I could probably convince myself that a huge bowl of ice cream would be a balanced meal.

Anyway, did I like this dish?  Let's just say that I loved this dish as much as Sheldon Cooper loves his spot. 


Ya, it was THAT good!  The combo of blue cheese and Buffalo wing sauce is utterly divine and it was hard to stop eating.  You cannot go wrong with gooey fries covered in two types of cheese drizzled in Frank!  It was utterly delicious and the kicker is that it's so easy. 

If you don't have my mad powers of persuasion and cannot convince yourself that this is a good meal then feel free to serve it as an appetizer, snack for watching some hockey on TV or if you have a pack of hungry teenage boys staring you down.

Cheesy Buffalo Chicken Fries

Yield: 4-6 servings

1/2 of a 1 kg bag of frozen crinkle cut fries
1/2 of a 1 kg bag of frozen steak cut fries
3 tbsp grapeseed oil or vegetable oil
1 tsp seasoning salt

1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups precooked frozen chicken strips, unbreaded

1/4 cup Frank's 'Red Hot Buffalo Wing Sauce'
3 tbsp sour cream
1 1/2 cups Cheddar cheese, grated
1/4 cup Blue cheese, crumbled
4 green onions, green ends only chopped
1/4 cup Ranch dressing

Preheat oven to 450F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

In a large bowl, toss the fries with 2 tbsp of oil and seasoning salt.  Pour fries onto prepared baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes, turning fries after 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small skillet, heat 1 tbsp of oil.  Brown chicken strips to get rid of excess moisture and give them some colour.  Set chicken pieces aside.

In a small bowl, combine Frank's Buffalo sauce and sour cream until smooth.

Remove fries from oven.  Change the oven rack to the highest setting and set the oven to broil.

Sprinkle the chicken, Cheddar and Blue cheese over the cooked fries.  Drizzle some of the Frank's sauce mixture over the fries.  Save the rest of the sauce for serving.  Return pan to oven and broil for 2-3 minutes (watch carefully!).  Remove once the cheese has melted.

Sprinkle fries with green onions.  Drizzle more of the Hot sauce mixture over the fries, if desired.  Serve with Ranch dressing and/or more hot sauce mixture.

Loosely Based On: TidyMom's Buffalo Cheese Fries


Monday, 15 April 2013

My Blathering and a review of 'A Study in Scarlet' (Sherlock Holmes #1)

Last week definitely didn't fall into the category of a 'regular old week'.  On Thursday we got hit with the beginning of an ice storm forcing the schools to close.   Things were slick with black ice but {barely} bad enough that the school board closed things down in case it got worse quickly.  To parents it meant a mad dash to find child care.  To kids this was a piece of heaven!  This 'day off' ended up being two days because once the storm really hit late Thursday night (yowzers!!) we lost power pretty much all day Friday.
 
That first day off my kids were jumping for joy. 
 
A 'rain day'??  Unheard of!!  Snow day, sure.  We occasionally get them, but rain!?!  Who thought this up??  We shall praise them!! 
 
That first day at home was nirvana for my kids. They lounged in their jammies and vegged to their hearts' content while I went to work in the afternoon. Nice.
 
Parents were less than thrilled at this sudden wrench in our daily lives.  We're made of strong Canadian stock, rain shouldn't scare us and stop us from sending off our spawn for their education! 
 
But once Friday morning came we knew that this was no ordinary rain.  With the 20-30mm of rain that fell Thursday night came a blast of cold that resulted in freezing rain covering everything with a 1/2" of ice.  Oh ya.  Our grass looked like it was covered with cryptonite (said Boy 2) and my dog took a rather harsh face plant as he skidded across the patio on his way to his morning constitution.  Poor lad!
 
Great pieces of ice began falling from trees, houses and hydro lines.  Large and small tree branches (including whole trees) were snapped due to the weight of the ice.  Ice also covered and downed power lines and poles resulting in a mass power outage to thousands and thousands of homes.
 
This chaos that ensued from the storm resulted in another day off of school for the kids on Friday.  At first my kids were thrilled at the idea of yet another day off of school (who wouldn't be?!).  They got up and did the requisite happy dance at the thought of another day sans school ... and then they tried to make toast for breakfast and turn on their computers and NetFlix.  The shocked and confused looks on their young faces put a smirk on my face. 
 
"What's wrong, my darlings?  Aren't you happy that you don't have to go to school again?", I asked knowing full well the reason for their shock.
 
"But, but, but .... there's no power!  What are we going to DO!?!", they asked me, appalled at the thought of no electronics or TV.
 
"Buck up, my sweets, for today you get to spend it with your Mom and we're going to do "Project Pioneer!!", I joyously regaled to their shocked and concerned faces.  "We'll play games -- you know, the kind kind that doesn't require power and has an actual board to play on.  We'll read, build forts, colour ... we can talk to each other!!"
 
Slowly, ever so slowly, they remembered what life was like without being plugged in.  It was like a fog lifted and they sluggishly got into the 'no power' mode of thinking.  It took awhile for it to sink in though.  My daughter thinking that she got one up on the power outage thought she'd just use the iPad to watch NetFlix.  Ha, ha!  Take that, power outage!!
 
"No, dearest, you can't get on to NetFlix because the modem is down.", I explained to her, unfortunately bursting her bubble of happiness.
 
"But the iPad is fully charged!!", she said knowingly with a smile.
 
The poor girl got my genes when it comes to electronics and understanding them so I did my best to explain it to her.  It was like the blind leading the blind.
 
"Please don't ask me to explain how the modem works because I have no idea, honey.  Daddy has tried to explain it to me many times before but we don't want Daddy to get a concussion from hitting his head on the wall before he heads out to work, do we?  Let's just say that we're all out of the magic juice that runs our connection to the internet."
 
I'm a total techno geek, no?  I'm sure that MIT will be knocking on my door any moment.  Either that or Steve Jobs has just rolled over in his grave. :(
 
Thankfully our house is quite bright so we were able to hunker down and play some games at the kitchen table, and bring up the bean bag and lounge in front of the gas fireplace.  Games were brought out that we hadn't played in a long time.  Raucous games of chess (oh yes, they can get out of HAND, people!), Blockus and Snakes and Ladders were played.  Lunch was a fancy affair of crackers, FreeNut Butter, fruit salad (from cans) and cheese strings.  Glamourous it was not.
 
Did they have fun?  Oh ya.  A day without being plugged in is a great family bonder and results in my not having to ask time and again to 'Get OFF your electronics!!' making it a much calmer experience for all.  Nothin' like playing Laura Ingalls Wilder for 8 hours to cause the kids to play WITH each other not beside each other on various iPods etc.
 
Note: During the outage I was able to write down a bit of a book review based on my first foray into the wonderfully quirky world of Sherlock Holmes {review to follow this blathering}.
 
Luckily we got our power restored late Friday afternoon but sadly residents of a small town near us may still be without power after 3 days! 
 
If anyone has seen Spring, can you please send her our way.  We're so through with winter!!
 
 
 

Author: Arthur Conan Doyle
Genre: Mystery
Type: Kindle e-book
Source: Own
First Published: 1887
First Line: "In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the army."

Book Description:  "A Study in Scarlet" is the first published story of one of the most famous literary detectives of all time, Sherlock Holmes. Here Dr. Watson, who has just returned from a war in Afghanistan, meets Sherlock Holmes for the first time when they become flat-mates at the famous 221 B Baker Street.

In "A Study in Scarlet" Sherlock Holmes investigates a murder at Lauriston Gardens as Dr. Watson tags along with Holmes while narratively detailing his amazing deductive abilities.

My Thoughts:  I'm a little embarassed to admit that I have never read a Sherlock Holmes book until now.  I have not been living under a rock for the past 40 years so, of course, I know of Sherlock Holmes.  I recognize his catch phrases like "Elementary" or "The game is afoot!".  But, I have to admit that I never really had any interest to read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's books until, well  ... until I saw Benedict Cumberbatch portray Sherlock on NetFlix.  He is perfection in the role.


If you haven't been introduced to Benedict Cumberbatch {I love saying his name, by the way}, he is the amazingly talented actor who portrays Sherlock on the show named after the infamous sleuth.  While others (Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Downey Jr) have portrayed Sherlock on film and TV, in my humble opinion, Benedict is the king when it comes to this quirky sleuth.

Ok, enough of my homage to Cumberbatch, back to my book review ...

A Study in Scarlet is the first book in the infamous series so it introduces the reader to Sherlock and Watson.  Sherlock is a very unique character.  He has exceptional deductive abilities and has the uncanny ability to read a person's body language and other cues like no other.  He is brilliant when it comes to facts about medicine, psychology and forensics but has no interest in learning 'trivial' information.  Like facts regarding the solar system or anything that won't help him solve crimes.  He's a quirky bugger.  He's king of intellectual snobs and makes no apologies for it.

Dr. Watson is no weak, bumbling underling and holds his own with Sherlock.  He is an experienced doctor just returned from Afganistan.  Needing to find a roommate he is set up with Sherlock and there begins their unique relationship.  While he is a little surprised at Sherlock's idosyncracies at first, he is able to keep his feet firmly on the ground and balance out Sherlock's frenetic intellect and help him solve the case.

While I had a vague recollection about what the mystery was about (due to seeing the TV show) what I noticed was that the show lacked the depth that Doyle went into as he described his suspects. Never before have I had a mystery that went into that much detail regarding the back story of the suspects.

I only have a couple of critiques regarding this book.  First, when the story segued from the happenings in England back in time to 1847 in the Utah territory it took me awhile to figure out who the new characters, John Ferrier and a young girl named Lucy actually were.  All of a sudden the reader is presented with these characters that, as far as we know, have nothing to do with what we just read.  It just made the book feel disjointed and more than a little confusing.

I also feel that Sir Arthur really put a negative slant on Mormonism which may offend some readers.  I have little to no knowledge of Mormonism but to me it was portrayed as more of a fascist cult than a religion.  Granted this book was written back in 1887 so I'm not sure how well informed people were of this religion.

Otherwise this was a good read and a good mystery.  Will I read another Sherlock book?  Perhaps.  Will I keep watching Benedict Cumberbatch in all his quirkiness?  Ohhhh, yes.

My Rating: 3/5 stars


Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Salisbury Steak

Salisbury Steak can definitely be considered one of my 'Comfort Foods for Cool Weather'.  This dish ranks right up there with hearty Chili con Carne, Beef Stew, my Mega Meat Sauce over spaghetti as well as baked ham with my Dad's famous Baked Beans and Scalloped Potatoes.  Mmmm, comfort food for chilly weather!!  It makes all this wet, nasty weather seem somehow more bearable, am I right?
 
I've tried making Salisbury Steak a couple of different ways over the years but this recipe is going to be my 'go-to' recipe from now on.  The kicker is definitely the gravy. 
 
Man, oh man! 
 
The first time I made it I apparently was having a brain fart and didn't make nearly enough garlic mashed potatoes.  What was I thinking?  Yes, the gravy gives boring old beef patties a new lease on life but, let's be honest here, the mashed spuds are really why I make this gravy.  The potatoes give me more of a normal reason to take an obscenely large ladle of gravy. 
 
Don't judge me.
 
Please don't think that I just plop down some spuds and some Salisbury Steak willy-nilly.  I am not an animal!  In my world there is a definite protocol one must follow in order to serve Salisbury Steak.  {In the tone of Aragorn from Lord of the Rings} One does not simply pour gravy over Salisbury Steak!  
 
First, you have to place a rather large dollop of garlicy spuddy goodness in the middle of your dinner plate.  Then you make a well in the centre with a big spoon and pour a little of the gravy into it thus making a gravy lake.  Place your beef patty into the lake so it gets doused in gravy from both sides.  Sprinkle it with some of the sautéed onions and mushrooms and then pour more gravy over it all.  This is my perfect way to serve Salisbury Steak.  And thus ends your tutorial.
 
Was this a hit with my family?  Honestly, I didn't pay much attention due to the fact that I was in a Gravy Coma.  I did note though that Boy 1 (aka Carnivore) devoured the meat and was able to use his fork with such dexterity that he could eat the meat without touching any of the *gasp* mushrooms or onions.  This dexterous skill leads me to wonder if a career as a surgeon is in his future.
 
So if you're feeling blaw from this wet, wet weather (at least in my neck of the woods) you may want to give this recipe a try and perhaps bone up on your Salisbury Steak Presentation Technique. :)
 
 

 


1 1/2lbs ground beef
1/2 cups dry bread crumbs
1 egg
1/2 tsp pepper

1 (10.75oz) can condensed French Onion soup
1 (10.75oz) can condensed Cream of Mushroom soup
2 tsp dry mustard
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup Worchestershire sauce

2 tbsp butter
1 large onion, sliced
1 1/2 cups fresh mushrooms, sliced

2 tbsp butter
1/4 cup flour


Preheat oven to 350F.  Line a large baking dish with foil and set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine ground beef, bread crumbs, egg and pepper.  Combine well and form into 6 patties.  Set aside.

In another bowl, combine soups, dry mustard, garlic powder, water and Worchestershire sauce. Mix well. Set aside.

In a large skillet, melt 2 tbsp of butter and sauté the onions and mushrooms until onions are translucent.  Set mushrooms and onions aside and keep covered.

In the same large skillet, melt 2 tbsp butter over medium-high heat.  Add the beef patties and brown each patty on both sides.  Place patties into the foil-lined pan.  Add 2 tbsp of butter to the skillet that you just used for the patties.  Once it's bubbling add the flour and cook for about 1 minute.  Add soup mixture to the skillet and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture slightly thickens.

Sprinkle the sautéed onions and mushrooms over patties.  Pour soup mixture over everything.  Bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes or until the internal temperatures of the patties reaches 160F (71C) and they are no longer pink inside.

Serve with garlic mashed potatoes.

Tip: I've also considered using frozen meatballs instead of the homemade beef patties.  It would save you time on prep as well as cooking time.  Just a thought.  If you give this change a try let me know how it works out.


Monday, 8 April 2013

Scent of Triumph



Author: Jan Moran
Type: e-book ARC
Genre: Historical Fiction (WWII)
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Briarcliffe Press
Publication Date: December 7, 2012
First Line: "Danielle Bretancourt von Hoffman braced herself against the gleaming mahogany-paneled stateroom wall, striving for balance as she flung open a brass porthole."

Note: My sincere thanks to Briarcliffe Press and NetGalley for providing me with this complimentary e-book copy in exchange for my honest review.

Publisher's Description: Scent of Triumph is the story of Danielle Bretancourt, a talented young French perfumer with a flair for fashion and a natural olfactory gift. In the language of perfumery, she is a Nose, with the rare ability to recognize thousands of essences by memory. The story opens on the day England declares war on Germany, and Danielle and her family are caught in the midst of a raging disaster sweeping across Europe.

Her life takes a tragic turn when her husband and son are lost behind enemy lines. She spies for the French resistance, determined to find them, but is forced to flee Europe with fragments of her family. Destitute, she mines her talents to create a magnificent perfume that captures the hearts of Hollywood's top stars, then gambles again to win wealth and success as a couturier. Her intelligence and flair attracts the adoration of Jonathan Newell-Grey, of England's top shipping conglomerate, and Cameron Murphy, Hollywood's most charismatic star.

Danielle charts her course through devastating wartime losses and revenge; lustful lovers and loveless marriages; and valiant struggles to reunite her family. Set between privileged lifestyles and gritty realities, here is one woman's story of courage, spirit, and resilience.


My ThoughtsThis book felt like it was two  very different books rolled into one.  The first third of the book was a historical fiction read based in the tumultuous WWII.  It was a very 'edge of your seat' and emotional read and I really enjoyed it.   

Somewhere around the time that Danielle moves to the USA the feel of the book, its pace and intensity change dramatically.  It went from gripping historical fiction to more of a romance saga, a la Sidney Sheldon.  There's nothing wrong with that but the sudden change in pace and feel of the book surprised me.  Unfortunately the last two thirds of the book felt much more predictable and the characters were clichéd.  I think that allowing the reader to get to know the characters inner feelings and thoughts would have helped make them more dynamic and real to me.

That said, I did enjoy Danielle as the main character.  She is a resilient woman who gets all sorts of life's horrors thrown at her and yet she keeps struggling to make something of herself in order to support her family.  What took away from her successes is that a lot of it hinged on quite a lot of good luck on her part.  I always had the feeling that something would pop up to help her on her way which didn't help with the predictability issue.

There were also the 'near misses' that Danielle and the man she truly loves have due to a simple omission of information or a misunderstanding.  This happened a few times and ended up, for me, feeling a little hokey and just made me feel frustrated with their relationship.  Overall, the last two-thirds of the book suffered from this predictability and the pace suffered as well.

Personally, I would have loved to have more of the book focus on the WWII action.  It was intense and emotional and griped me from the beginning.  One of the characters who helped make it so 'edge of your seat' is the villainous Heinrich.  Unfortunately he had a very minor role in the book and I was more than a little shocked that he wasn't used more to stir things up later on.

There is another character in the book whom I wanted to learn more about but sadly it didn't happen until the very end of the book. Danielle loses contact with this person due to WWII. Throughout the book her loss is felt but when she finally gets closure with this missing person it's done in such a rushed and quick manner that I felt a little jilted. I wanted to know exactly what his/her story was and what they went through in the past several years.

This is a book about triumphing over life's obstacles.  It's about holding onto hope and being successful despite what life throws at you.  It centres around the science, techniques and skill involved in the development and design of perfume (which I found really interesting).  Unfortunately, the predictable plot and the switch from griping historical fiction to more of a slow romantic saga effected the pace and energy that was in the beginning of the book.

My Rating: 3/5 stars


Friday, 5 April 2013

Bacon, Tomato and Ranch Dip (or Potato Topper)

As mentioned in a previous post, last weekend we had our big Easter celebration.  The whole family was there - all 18 of us ready for some food and frivolity.  Being that it was a balmy +9C and sunny, we had all 10 grandchildren on my parents' front lawn playing before we had our roast beast.  Never ones to miss an opportunity, my sisters and I stupidly/naively decided to get all 10 kids together for some pics.  Capturing some familial memories for posterity. This would be a breeze, right? 

OMG! 

My sisters and I were totally insane and deluded!

We did manage to get a few shots off (and even accomplished a pyramid with all 10 kids) but if you EVER think that photographers have an easy job ... think again.  They must have the combined patience of a Ghandi and Mother Theresa.  I feared that my parents' neighbours thought we were a bunch of banshees as my sisters and I called instructions to the kids:

'Put your right arm over a bit, E. Your OTHER right arm.  No a little bit more.'
'B let your sister stand on your back.  I know her shoes hurt but it'll only be for a minute.'
'Em, put the plastic sword DOWN!' 
'Girls, do we really need your dolls in the picture??'
'D, can you please run and grab your brother, he's running away again.' 

You can picture it, no?  A quiet time capturing cherubs it was not.

Ok so, the photo shoot done and wine finally in the hands of my sisters and I, we had to get food on the table.  The one thing you have to know about my family is that individually the women can put out a mighty delicious spread on time at home.  Together?  We lose all semblance of time management and almost always end up eating later than expected.  With 10 kids, 4 dogs and 8 adults under foot -- who could possibly predict it, right?  Low blood sugar in our 10 spawn = ca-razy mood swings.

Since I knew that we'd ultimately be eating later than normal I had decided to make a dip to bring to keep our blood sugar levels on an even keel and keep us all jovial.

{NOTE: One of my sisters had a similar idea and brought her infamous cheese ball --- hopefully I'll either convince her to guest post here on the blog or get her to share it with me so I can share it with all y'all.  It is divine and didn't stand a chance with our bunch.  It was gone in literally 5 minutes.  Poor Brad didn't even get any.  Ya snooze ya lose, Mister.  With cheeseballs we're like hyenas on a lame gazelle, a piranha on pretty much anything.  Ya, we luuurve our appetizers!}

But I digress ....

Now that I had an idea of what I wanted to make I scoured my pantry and fridge and decided that I had an itch for something bacon-y.  Mmmm, bacon!  By throwing a little bit of this and a little bit of that I came up with this dip.

My, oh MY!!  Was this ever tasty!!  We ate about half of the dip before the bulk of us wandered off to other things so I quickly took the remaining dip and hid it in the fridge ... because I had an idea!  A delicious idea!! 

Along with the prime rib that was on the menu we also had a tonne of potatoes baking too.  What if {stay with me here} .... we put some of this dip ONTO the baked potatoes?!?!  It would be like a smothered baked tater with all the fixin's in one scoop!!  Oh happy day!!  This tater topping was stellar!!

So now we have two uses to gourge ourselves on the taste of Ranch, bacon and green onion!!  Win-win!

So if you have a big gathering and need to calm the wild beasts that dwell within you and yours give this dip a try.  It'll put a smile on your face ... which will hopefully get you through any photo opp with your family.


8oz cream cheese, softened
5 tsp dry Ranch dip powder (I used Club House's 'Ranch Style Salads'n Dips)
1 cup sour cream (I used 14% fat)
1 cup Cheddar cheese, grated finely
1/3 cup real bacon bits (I used Walmart's 'Great Value' brand)
2 green onions, chopped
1 Roma tomato - seeded and diced

Garnish (optional) -- extra bacon bits, tomato, grated Cheddar and green onion

Mix all dip ingredients together in a medium bowl.  Refrigerate for a minimum of 2 hours to allow the flavours to blend.

Serve with crackers, nacho chips or with baby carrots, celery sticks and cucumber slices

NOTE: This dip makes an excellent baked potato topper.  Outstanding!!

Source: The Baking Bookworm

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Whistling Past The Graveyard



Author: Susan Crandall
Type: e-book ARC
Source: NetGalley
Genre: Historical Fiction (American Civil Rights Era)
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication Date: July 2, 2013
First Line: "My grandmother said she prays for me every day."

Publisher's Description: From an award-winning author comes a wise and tender coming-of-age story about a nine-year-old girl who runs away from her Mississippi home in 1963, befriends a lonely woman suffering loss and abuse, and embarks on a life-changing road trip.

The summer of 1963 begins like any other for nine-year-old Starla Claudelle. Born to teenage parents in Mississippi, Starla is being raised by a strict paternal grandmother, Mamie, whose worst fear is that Starla will turn out like her mother. Starla hasn’t seen her momma since she was three, but is convinced that her mother will keep her promise to take Starla and her daddy to Nashville, where her mother hopes to become a famous singer—and that one day her family will be whole and perfect.

When Starla is grounded on the Fourth of July, she sneaks out to see the parade. After getting caught, Starla’s fear that Mamie will make good on her threats and send her to reform school cause her to panic and run away from home. Once out in the country, Starla is offered a ride by a black woman, Eula, who is traveling with a white baby. She happily accepts a ride, with the ultimate goal of reaching her mother in Nashville.

As the two unlikely companions make their long and sometimes dangerous journey, Starla’s eyes are opened to the harsh realities of 1963 southern segregation. Through talks with Eula, reconnecting with her parents, and encountering a series of surprising misadventures, Starla learns to let go of long-held dreams and realizes family is forged from those who will sacrifice all for you, no matter if bound by blood or by the heart.


My ThoughtsThis book had a lot goin' on.  It was a coming of age story, a civil rights story, a story about friendship and it detailed what the term 'family' truly means.  The author taps into the unpredictability and the emotions of the Civil Rights era.  And with her authentic use of the vernacular of the time, helped make her main characters, Starla and Eula, feel very genuine.

Starla was an interesting, likeable and refreshing main character. She had an innocence about her due to her young age and her restrictive upbringing.  She was honest to a fault, at times quite blunt, energetic and fiercely loyal to those she loves.  She also brought a child-like sense of humour that was quite unique ("Feeling as low as skunk's toes").  While she seemed very precocious and a typical nine-year-old, there were a few instances that had me wondering if her thoughts and choice of words were that of an older person, not a nine year old child.

While this book was heart-felt and had many emotional scenes to it, I can't help but feel that the author just touched on some of the events of the time.  I think this feeling stems from the fact that a nine year old narrated the story.  By doing this, it gives the reader a very different, naive and innocent view of the civil rights era.  It's definitely a unique view of the turbulent era but unfortunately it also limited the amount of depth the author could go into while describing the issues of the time.

But, on the other hand, using a child to explore such an emotional and tumultuous time enabled the reader to follow Starla's journey as her eyes are slowly opened to the very real feelings and behaviours between Blacks and Whites of the time.  She begins to see, firsthand, what life is like for Blacks.  She loses her 'rose coloured glasses' and sees her world as it truly is -- a very unfair and tempestuous time.   

It shouldn't come as a surprise that this book was very emotional at times.  The parent in me was on the edge of my seat (and quite emotional) while reading the parts of this book where Starla misinterprets events on her journey - and putting herself in harm's way.  I also felt so bad for this young girl who seemed to not have many people in her corner. She lives in a fantasy of her 'famous mother' coming to save her meanwhile living with a grandmother who can't stand her and an absentee father. She had a quiet desperation about her as she tried to find someone to love her. It's this feeling of needing to be loved that helped make Starla and Eula kindred spirits.

Eula was a character that I didn't like right off the bat.  I didn't trust her at first and I was very frustrated with how she interacted with her husband.  But as the book progresses we see another side to Eula.  Some of her comments about 'gifs' (gifts) and her wisdom about healing oneself are definitely going to stay with me awhile.  I have so many of her quotes highlighted in my Kindle that I plan to go back and read them again and again.

My only wish is that the reader could have seen certain situations from Eula's point of view.  I think this would have added much more depth to her character.  Plus playing off Starla's innocence with what Eula has experienced in her life as a black woman would have given the reader two vastly different perspectives of the same era. 


I have to admit that it was the synopsis of the book, not the title that inspired me to request this book to review.  So, when the author divulged the meaning behind the title I will admit that I had an 'ah ha' moment when it finally made sense to me.  I won't ruin it for those of you who aren't familiar with this saying but I will say that it's something that I used to do as a child but had never heard this saying describing it.

Due to the nicely paced storyline, the uncertainty of the era and the overall feeling that I had for the main characters, I was assuming that I was in for a very emotional ending.  But as I neared the end of the book it felt like the momentum or the energy was lost a bit of its steam.  Everything was tied up a little too neatly at the end leaving it feeling a little disjointed from the rest of the book.  I guess the ending just felt too convenient and easy.

Overall this is a touching, sometimes heart-breaking tale with very unique characters.  But it's also an uplifting tale about family and how 'family' means being with the people you love, not necessarily with those whom you share blood with.

My Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Note: My sincere thanks to Gallery Books and NetGalley for providing me with this complimentary e-book copy in exchange for my honest review.


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