Tuesday, February 28, 2012

2012 Classics Challenge: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London: J. M. Dent & Co., 1897.

Earlier this month, I went down to Virginia to celebrate my mother's 80th birthday. While there, I came down with a cold. When you come down with a cold, there is no better cure than lying in bed at my parents' house and reading Pride and Prejudice, which, of course, was easy enough to find on their shelves. Unlike Pride and Prejudice's poor Jane Bennet, who, during her first visit with the Bingleys, comes down with a nasty cold that hangs on for days, I was over mine in no time. Happily, while feeding my cold, I was also fulfilling one of my assigned readings for November's Autumn's Classics Challenge.

Below are the challenge prompts and my answers to them. I've finished the book, so will work my way through all 3 levels of prompts.

Level 1 What phrases has the author used to introduce this character? What are your first impressions of them? Find a portrait or photograph that closely embodies how you imagine them.

Austen lets us know from the beginning that all the Bennet daughters are beautiful when she tells us,
"[Mr. Bingley] entertained hopes of being admitted to a sight of the young ladies, of whose beauty he had heard much." (p. 7). We then hear what Mr. Bingley thinks, specifically, of Elizabeth, when he tells Darcy, "'...there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable.'" (p. 10). We learn a little more about Elizabeth when she and her sister Jane are talking, and she tells us how she differs from Jane, "'Compliments always take you by surprise, and me never.'" (p. 12), which points to a sort of confidence Elizabeth has, probably because, as we are later told, she is her father's favorite child. Early on in the book, Elizabeth comes across as discerning and serious, but she has a wry sense of humor that's charming, and she is not above giving into her heart, which she does when she worries about Jane falling ill with that cold and goes off to care for her sister. My first impressions are of someone I'd like to befriend.

I've always imagined Elizabeth Bennet as a woman in a Renoir painting. According to Austen's description of her, her eyes are her best feature. This woman in "At the Concert" (above) has large, beautiful eyes, doesn't she? And she's got an intelligent look about her, seeming to be lost in thought and not at all interested in that bouquet of flowers and program that seem to be holding the other girl's interest. Elizabeth is wise and intelligent, not the sort to be much impressed by bouquets.

Level 2 How has the character changed? Has your opinion of them altered? Are there aspects of their character you aspire to? or hope never to be? What are their strengths and faults? Do you find them believable? If not, how could they have been molded so? Would you want to meet them?

Although still quite judgmental, Elizabeth softens a little as the book goes on. My opinion of her never alters much. I'd still like to be her friend. When it comes to aspirations, I wish I were as good as she is at witty repartee. She always seems to know just what to say. What I hope never to be is someone who has to depend on a man in order to live (but that's not really her fault. She can't help the era into which she was born). She becomes very human to this reader when she suffers being embarrassed by her family in front of Darcy, a scene which always makes me laugh. Her weaknesses are her tendency to jump to conclusions and to be a bit of a know-it-all. Her strengths are her ability to admit when she's wrong and to handle hurt with humor. I find her to be very believable for a 21st-century character, but maybe a bit unbelievable for a woman of her time. That may just be because I have my own biases (or should we call them prejudices?) when it comes to the 18th and 19th centuries and women. Since I would like to befriend her, and I can't do so without meeting her, I absolutely want to meet her.

Level 3 Try writing a short (four sentences +) note or letter as the character, addressed to you, another character, the author, anyone.

Dear Emily,

I hear that it is your desire to meet me, and that you will be visiting our mutual friend Mrs. ---- in August. Please join us for dinner at Pemberly on August 12th. Mrs. ---- has indicated that a walk around the gardens, weather permitting, would make our first meeting most agreeable to you. This shall be arranged.

With kindest regards,

And when I get there, I will focus on becoming her friend and will not spend all my time gawking at Darcy, trying to figure out if he really is too good to be true.

P.S. Stay tuned. I will be writing up full reviews of both 1984 (the first book I read for this challenge) and Pride and Prejudice over at my library book review blog.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Soup Stock and Roasted Red Pepper and Tomato Soup

For years, even though I was quite competent in the kitchen, I avoided making certain things, because they just sounded too hard or like a lot of effort for something I could so easily get from a can. One of these things was soup stock. It's so easy just to buy a can (or carton, as the case may be) of broth, and so many recipes say ("stock or broth"). Not only can I easily pour pre-made broth, but I can also use this stuff I love called "Better than Bouillon," which is good for making soup stock and also good for flavoring casseroles.

Every so often, though, I decide to challenge myself in the kitchen, and over the past year I've been challenging myself to make my own soup stock. It's not much of a challenge, really. It's time-consuming, yes, because you have to let the stuff simmer for a long time (the longer the better), but it's incredibly easy. What got me started? Well, besides realizing that for years I've been making great turkey soup with the leftover Thanksgiving carcass my in-laws were always happy to give me (so, in essence, I already sort of knew how to make stock), I decided to explore a little Amish health food store here in Lancaster County I'd never been in and discovered that they sold soup bones in their meat case along with all their other meat. Yes, I am that person who was always too intimidated to walk into a grocery store and ask the butcher for soup bones. Not anymore. I happily did so last summer at a little market in Maine that I frequent.

I began exploring with beef stock and found I loved it. I don't make much that requires beef stock, though, so it wasn't long before I began experimenting with vegetable stock. Are you like me? Do you wander around the Farmer's Market on a Saturday, see all kinds of things that will help you meet your "5-7 servings of fruits and vegetables" a day, load your cart, promise yourself you're going to go home, wash and chop them all up, so they can conveniently be turned into stir-fries, crudites, omelette enhancers, etc? Then, you get home, and your friends call to invite you to go hiking, so you throw everything in the fridge, and go. Hiking turns into a girls' night out. Sunday, you're exhausted (and maybe a little hung-over) and eat sandwiches and order pizza. Monday, you have a wretched day at work. You come home and eat crackers and cheese and ice cream for dinner. You get the picture. By Thursday, all those vegetables you bought with such high hopes are wilted and beginning to shrivel. Don't throw them away! Save them till Saturday, and make vegetable stock, which can then be used to make some very simple soups (ones you can even make when hung-over) during the course of the week.

Before I get started, I'll tell you one more great thing about making soup stock. I read an article in "O" magazine not long ago about how parts of the vegetable that we typically throw away (onion skins, garlic skins, etc.) are actually very healthy. The best way to get their benefits is to use them in soup stock, because, you know, who wants to eat onion skins? I read that article with glee. For all intents and purposes, it means you can just throw a bunch of vegetables in a pot with very little prep and make a great soup.

Here's one of my basic recipes. I say "one" because you can experiment with just about any kinds of vegetables. I mean, if you bought brussels sprouts thinking maybe you could learn to cook them in some way that makes them palatable and never did, you can substitute them for the cabbage (putting them in stock definitely makes them palatable). I didn't have carrots the day I wrote down this version, so I didn't use them. When I have them, I do. It's pretty damn difficult to ruin vegetable stock, which is why it's so laughable that I avoided making it for so many years.

Basic Vegetable Stock

1 2" piece of ginger, unpeeled
1/4 of a small green cabbage, cutup
1 large onion with the skin, quartered
3 stalks of celery, with their leaves
3 cloves of garlic, with their skins, split in half lengthwise
6 stems of parsley (I'm partial to the curly kind and always buy it. Don't know why)
1 T sea salt
8 cups of water

1. Put everything in a large soup pot.
2. Cover and cook on high until it begins to boil.
3. Reduce the heat to medium low and let simmer at least two hours or up to six.
4. Pour the stock through a colander to strain the cooked vegetables, which can now be composted or thrown away and store the stock in the fridge (you can also freeze it).

This makes about a half gallon of soup stock (or about 4 cans).

Now you've made your stock, which is a lovely thing all on its own, poured into a mug and served with, say, a grilled cheese sandwich, but here's another lovely thing you can do with it:

Roasted Red Pepper and Tomato Soup

1 T olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
1 onion, sliced
4 stems of fresh parsley
2 dried hot peppers, split (optional. If you stick with my cooking, you will discover I love spicy foods and will add hot peppers all over the place. If you don't like spicy, everything can be made without them)
1 16-oz jar of roasted red peppers, drained (I've also made this soup, when they're in season, with fresh peppers that I roasted, but it's great either way, and this is less time-consuming)
1 16-oz can of whole tomatoes, drained (I'm lucky enough to be able to buy home-made canned tomatoes in jars from a local Amish market all year-round)
1 14 1/2 oz. can of chick peas, drained and rinsed
1 14 1/2 oz. can of light coconut milk
2 cups of vegetable stock (of course, you can also used canned broth)
Ground black pepper to taste

1. Heat the olive oil over medium heat in the bottom of a soup pot until hot.
2. Add the garlic, hot pepper, onion, and parsley and stir and heat until onions and garlic are soft and golden.
3. Add the peppers and cook and stir until heated.
4. Add the tomatoes, chick peas, and water.
5. Cover and turn the heat up to high. Bring the soup to a boil.
6. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer for 15 minutes.
7. Remove the soup from the heat and let it cool a bit.
8. Puree it either in a blender, food processor, or with a hand-held blender.
9. Return to the stove on medium heat and stir in the coconut milk.
10. Add ground black pepper.
11. Heat gently until thoroughly hot (about 5-10 minutes) and serve

This makes about 6 1-cup servings. You can garnish it with grated cheese, chopped cilantro, chopped pecans, a dab of sour cream, etc. It's delicious served with thick slices of sour dough bread and a side salad of lettuce, onions, chopped apples, chopped pecans, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Things I (Inexplicably) Like

1. "Car Talk" on NPR. Click and Clack, the hosts of this show that ought to bore me to tears, have voices that are almost as annoying as sports broadcasters with names like "The Red Bull." I am not a car fan. I think of them as necessary evils that get me from Point A to Point B, because there is no such thing as good public transportation in America (unless you live somewhere like NYC, and then, you only think it's good, because you've never, well, lived somewhere like Paris). Tell me you'd like to discuss the inner workings of cars to me, and I am likely to take out my book and start reading. Nonetheless, when I am riding around in that necessary evil on a Saturday, running errands, and I find out that "Car Talk" happens to be on, I will listen to it as if I'm listening to that excellent audiobook version of Dracula that I so love. As Click and Clack would say, "Go figure."

2. The television show Criminal Minds. Want to freak me out? Put me in a house all by myself at night and tell me there's a serial killer on the loose in town. Serial killers terrify me. I constantly have to remind myself that the statistical likelihood of my being the next victim of the "Blue Bonnet Butcher" while I'm out walking the dog just before bed is next to nil. Criminal Minds was a fun, thrilling, interesting show when I first discovered it (being way behind the times when it comes to television viewing, this was only last fall), until someone told me that every episode is based on a real serial killer. We have had enough creepy killers in this country to be able to highlight one per week on a show that has been on the air for something like seven years? Those comforting statistics on which I used to rely are, somehow, not quite so comforting anymore. Does this mean I'm no longer addicted to the show? Of course not. Why would I stop watching something that gives me nightmares and adds to late night fears, while telling everyone how it's the only show on TV that I really watch?

3. Chick lit. When I was a teenager, I shunned all those romances my sisters and mother read, preferring to spend all my time with other favorites of theirs, like Agatha Christie, when I wasn't hunkered down with Stephen King and John Irving. Today, give me a candy-colored cover, and I'll happily breeze my way through it, egregious typos and grammatical errors and all. I can't live off this type of work, but I certainly find myself craving it from time to time, most often just after I've read, yet another, grim contemporary "masterpiece" all the critics have hailed to the moon and back that has left me thinking, "This is what qualifies as 'great literature' in today's world?" I don't know, I guess it's just nice, sometimes, to pick up something and know that it will end with the girl getting the boy, no matter how formulaic it all is. And, at least, it never pretends to be anything it isn't, which is much more than I can say for "The new Huck Finn" or "This century's War and Peace."

4. Oysters on the half shell. I would like to know whatever possessed the first human being who ever ate one to look at it and think, "That looks like it's going to be delicious." There's probably a lot I wouldn't eat if I went by looks alone, but this has got to be way up at the top of the list. They don't merely look unappetizing; they look gross, like something some kid in a biology class would take from a dissected pig and use to frighten others. I don't just like them, though, I love them, and I can't explain why. It's not as though they're loaded with flavor (in fact, half the reason to eat them is the lemon and cocktail sauce typically served with them). It's not as though they have great texture. But I crave them sometimes. I miss them living where I do (even though we're not far from the Chesapeake Bay, the restaurants around here tend to cater to a meat and potatoes crowd, so they're not standard items on most menus). When I go to Maine, I don't eat lobster nearly as much as I eat oysters.

5. Craft shows and fairs. I know: what could be less inspiring than booth after booth of people desperately trying to make something out of nothing? And yet, tell me there's a craft show coming to town, and I'll pen it in on my calendar. I don't think it's because I necessarily care for much of what's being sold (although I do. Some of the jewelry I find at craft fairs is gorgeous, and I like anything that's hand-knitted, but most of that stuff tends to be out of my price range. Then again, I often don't: highly-shellacked, wooden plaques with "cutesy" sayings on them, anyone?). I think it has more to do with a certain sort of fascination: look at all the people who flock to these things, look at all this creativity, look at all the things I could have thought of to make and sell, look at all the things I could never, ever make, even if I spent every minute of every day trying to make them. On the other hand, it may just be the food.

What about you? What are some things you inexplicably like?

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Blog, Interrupted

So, just when I came up with this whole new blogging plan, it seems I've not had any time to stick to it. It also seems I won't have any time to stick to it for at least another week or so (nothing bad going on, just a whirlwind of "busy-ness"). If you haven't lost all faith in me, please stick with me. I promise to get back to books, food, music, and whatevers of life soon.