The Coffee Trader, by David Liss

I first heard of David Liss while listening to a program on either MPR or NPR – I can’t remember which. In any case, they were discussing his forthcoming new book, The Twelfth Enchantment, and I was intrigued. At the library not long after, I went to see which of Liss’ books were in the collection. They had several, and I chose The Coffee Trader, one of his older works, figuring if I liked it I could work my way up to his more recent novels.

Indeed, I liked The Coffee Trader. It was perhaps a little more simplistic in style than the books I’ve read recently (i.e. the poetic language throughout White Oleander), but overall it was an interesting piece of historical fiction surrounding the introduction of coffee into major European markets in the mid-1600s. The plot itself was interesting and tense, but the characters fell a little flat. The main character, Miguel, was not fully fleshed out, and as a result I felt little connection to him. Hannah, Miguel’s sister-in-law, was an intriguing character, however, as a woman divided in many areas of her life: duties as a wife vs. attraction to Miguel; desire to be a meek wife vs. desire to learn; the Catholic faith of her childhood vs. the abrupt revelation of her true Jewish heritage. Alferonda is another interesting character – he is neither good nor evil; having been wronged by his community, he has made the most of his life and become a puppet-master of sorts. The plot delivers twist after twist until the very end, making it an exciting and compulsive read. I read it in two days; it is by no means a difficult read.*

I’ll be returning to the library for more of Liss’ books in the future.

*Especially if, like me, you skim over the economics parts that explain the Dutch stock exchange in the 1650s.


Cucumber Boats; or, Some Experiments are Bound to Fail

I went to my little vegetable garden last night and came back with a basket of cucumbers and cherry tomatoes. I knew just what to do with the cherry tomatoes: Vegetarian Tortellini Salad. (I admit, I’ve been largely subsisting on this dish lately. I just can’t get enough of it.) But as for the cucumbers, I was a little overwhelmed. I’ve been pulling cukes out of the garden for weeks now, and I’m a little (read: really) tired of eating them raw as slices. And the cukes I picked last night were enormous; there were 3 I couldn’t wrap my hand around, and they were probably as long as my forearm.

I looked for a few recipes online, but most were more involved than I was willing to try last night. Some called for cream cheese, which I love, and I figured I would make something up. Thus, my version of Cucumber Boats.

It was not my finest dish.

It was easy to prepare and sounded tasty. I had high hopes. Some experiments are just destined to fail. Here is the recipe. If you have a great cucumber recipe, send it over. Please. I’m begging you.

Cucumber Boats

1 medium cucumber
about 2 tablespoons cream cheese
Italian Herbs*

Cut the ends off of the cucumber, and slice lengthwise. With a small spoon, scrape out the seeds. In a small bowl, mix the cream cheese with the herbs. I just kept adding more sprinkles of herbs until it looked pretty good and…herb-y. Liberally smear the herbed cream cheese into the hollowed-out cucumbers.

*I have a little jar in the spice drawer called Italian Herbs. Pretty sure it’s basil, oregano, maybe parsley, etc.

White Oleander, by Janet Fitch

White Oleander, by Janet Fitch, is practically prose poetry the whole way through. The language is rich and textured, rendering the details of each scene in heartrending detail. The story follows Astrid Magnussen, whose mother, Ingrid, is a poet who tells Astrid they are descended from Vikings. Ingrid despises weakness and worships strength and intelligence – especially her own. When she is rejected by a lover, she is driven mad and kills the man, landing herself in prison and Astrid in foster care. There follows six years of foster homes for Astrid, from the cruel to the ignorant to one tender woman that Astrid actually comes to love. Tied to her mother’s legacy and harshness through letters and a few visits to the prison, Astrid struggles to find herself and peace with the world as she grows from girl to woman.

The whole book is heart wrenching. At times, Astrid is strong, at others she is weak; she is human. As the story progresses, I found myself perched on the edge of my seat, just waiting for the next disaster to befall Astrid. This is fabulous writing, since it conveys Astrid’s own fear and sense that everything is temporary to the reader. At times, I was tripped up by the choppiness of the prose, but the vast majority of it is expressive, poetic, and emotional. I was unsure as I neared the end of the book how the story could possibly end with any sort of finality,* but ultimately it was wrapped up in such a way that I was satisfied with Astrid’s development as a character, the events surrounding her mother’s trial, and the forecasted future for Astrid.

*Not, of course, that finality at the end of a novel is a necessity. Some books simply end – and that bugs me.

Carrot Cake Cupcakes

My sister’s favorite kind of cake is carrot cake, so for her bridal shower I decided it would be nice to make carrot cake cupcakes. I’d never made carrot cake in any way, shape or form before, so I scoured the internet for a recipe that looked simple and good.* Dear ol’ Martha Stewart came through for me. My first time making carrot cake cupcakes turned out to be a banging success. The cupcakes were moist, sweet and spicy, and a huge hit with all the guests.

*It’s my strong belief that the best dishes – whether a main course, breakfast, or dessert – are made from simple, whole ingredients. You won’t find many ingredients in my kitchen that can’t be found at the local Cub Foods.

Carrot Cake Cupcakes

1 pound medium carrots, peeled and shredded (I did this by hand with a cheese grater)
3 large eggs, room temperature
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
1/3 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup golden raisins (optional; I used them and liked it)
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
Cream cheese frosting (recipe to follow)
Shredded toasted coconut (recipe to follow)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line 2 standard muffin tins with paper liners. In a bowl, whisk together carrots, eggs, sugar, oil, buttermilk, vanilla, and raisins. In another bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. Stir flour mixture into carrot mixture until well combined. Divide batter among muffin cups, filling each 3/4 full. Bake, rotating tins halfway through, until testers inserted into centers come out clean, 23 to 28 minutes. Let cool in tins on wire racks, 10 minutes. Turn out cupcakes onto wire racks, and let cool completely. Unfrosted cupcakes can be stored overnight at room temperature, or frozen for up to 2 months in airtight containers. Frost cupcakes with cream cheese frosting (recipe below). Frosted cupcakes can be refrigerated for up to 3 days; bring to room temperature, and sprinkle with toasted coconut (recipe below), pressing gently to adhere.

Cream Cheese Frosting

2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
12 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
4 cups (1 lb.) powdered sugar
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Beat butter and cream cheese with an electric mixer until light and fluffy (2-3 minutes). Reduce speed to low. Add sugar, 1 cup at a time, and then vanilla; mix until smooth.

Toasted Coconut

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spread coconut evenly on a baking sheet with a rim. Toast, stirring occasionally, until starting to brown, about 10 minutes (or longer if a darker color is desired). Transfer sheet to a wire rack; let coconut cool completely.

Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates

Richard Yates’ 1961 novel Revolutionary Road is the story of Frank and Alice Wheeler, a beautiful suburban couple with two children and a lifetime of broken dreams. Alice was going to be an actress; Frank was going to live in Europe. But real life imposes on their dreams and slowly breaks down all that was good between them.

The style of this book reminds me strongly of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The tone of both novels is one of glittering excitement masking the ugly, mundane truth. Both have the sense that no matter what happens, the ending is destined for tragedy, and while for a brief moment you might believe – hope – wish that somehow it all leads to a happy ending, you know the truth.

I would have loved to read Revolutionary Road in a class. The writing is rich and full, and there is a lot to analyze and discuss. It is about the hopelessness of lost dreams and how easy it is to lose ourselves.

Vegetarian Tortellini Salad

For the record, I’m not a vegetarian. But I do love veggies, and many of my favorite recipes are lacking meat. This one happens to be a ‘vegetarian’ option – and I hope that won’t put off any meat-lovers out there (in fact, you could probably add meat if you really wanted to). Trust me on this recipe; it’s tasty, super easy, and totally versatile. I ate half of it for dinner, then brought the rest to work for lunch the following day. It was equally delicious warm and cold.

I found the recipe online, and when I realized I only had about half of the ingredients in my house, I decided to make it anyway, using whatever I could find, similar to my Simplest Stir Fry. The recipe below reflects the way I made the dish. The original recipe also called for olives, artichoke hearts and endive or romaine lettuce. Though these ingredients would have probably been delicious, I didn’t have them, so I improvised. It worked out well, which makes it clear that this recipe can really be tailored to fit your tastes.

Vegetarian Tortellini Salad

7 oz. cheese-filled tortellini
1 cup cherry tomatoes, quartered*
1 large handful fresh sugar snap peas or green beans
1 large handful red pepper, chopped into bite-sized pieces
2 tablespoons fresh basil, torn into small bits (be generous)
1/4 cup shaved fresh Parmesan cheese**
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
ground black pepper

Fill a mixing bowl with ice and water and set aside. In a large pot, bring water to a rolling boil. Flash the green beans in the boiling water for 2-3 minutes to blanch them. Pull them out with a slotted spoon and submerge them in the ice bath to stop them cooking. Leave in for a minute and then drain them thoroughly. Chop into bite-sized pieces and set aside. In the same water, cook the tortellini per package directions. In a small saucepan, blanch the red peppers the same way as the peas. While tortellini is cooking, combine tomatoes, peas, peppers, cheese and olive oil. When the pasta is cooked, drain thoroughly. While still warm, toss the tortellini in the bowl with the other ingredients so it soaks in the oil and flavors. Right before serving, stir in basil. Add ground black pepper to taste.

*I had about a handful of grape tomatoes and three (yes, three) cherry tomatoes from my garden. I quartered them and tossed them in. I wish I’d had more, but that’s life.

**I didn’t have any Parmesan, not even shredded. I did have feta, and it was really good. Next time I’ll plan ahead and have Parmesan, because it goes so well with tortellini.

The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian, by Elizabeth KostovaElizabeth Kostova’s historically dense novel, The Historian, is one of my favorites. The story manages to include a ton of history while not becoming bogged down in unnecessary facts. All of the information is given in the context of the story, so it is both engrossing and informative. The history focuses on Vlad the Impaler and Wallachia, the region he ruled in the mid- to late-1400s.

Much of the story is told through flashbacks and letters. This format lends itself well to the slow reveal of important information. The tension slowly intensifies as more details come to light and flashbacks suddenly begin to make sense. Occasionally I was a little tripped up by the complexity of the history combined with the fact that the story wasn’t told in a , but overall Kostova did a brilliant job of writing the story. It was clear that Kostva did an immense amount of research in the process of writing The Historian.

On the whole, the novel is a wonderfully-written, complex and compelling story. It’s believable – even considering that it’s ultimately about vampires.* This is a book I look for at the Half-Priced Book Store every time I visit; I just want to have it on my shelves.

*Vampires. What a saturated topic in our culture these days. Twilight. True Blood. Countless other series that take advantage of the supernatural craze. However, I would assert that The Historian steps out of this pop culture craze. It’s very much a book for adults, and there will be no “Team Edward/Team Jacob” nonsense. The vampire myth in The Historian ties to history and Bram Stoker’s original Dracula. The idea of the vampire is creepy and sinister, not a heartthrob. So if you’re turned off by the idea of “another vampire book,” just get over it and pick up a copy of The Historian. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.