Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Secret to Amazing Boxed Brownies

Well, here it is folks, the secret that you've always wanted to know! Boxed brownies are a cinch--totally worth the 80 cents you spend when they're on sale... but somehow, with the simple instructions on the back, and the cook times---they just never turn out quite right.

Now, this is the easiest thing in the world. All you need to do to turn those boxed brownies into a mass of gooey, heavenly chocolate is this:

Step 1: ignore the instructions on the box.
Step 2: Dump the dry brownie mix in a bowl.
Step 3: mix in just over 1/3 cup of milk, an equal amount of vegetable/cooking oil, and 1 (one) egg.
Step 4: Pour the mixture into a greased square pan (I think I always use a 9x9)
Step 5: Bake at 350 for about 30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean from the center.

(to make things really awesome, mix in a few chocolate chips during step 3.)

One of my relatives made really good brownies from a box, and told me what the instructions were on the back... I think this is something very similar. I've done it with my boxed brownies ever since, and I'm telling you--it makes the brownies absolutely phenomenal.

Alphabet Coloring Book - page 9

After much deliberation over adjectives and nouns that start with "i", I settled on this... I rather like it. Though, it does make me want to go take a nap.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Anya's War: book review and summary

Anya's War was not what I expected. I knew it was about a Jewish family around the time of World War II--but this family moved to Shanghai, China, where they could live freely as Jews. And in China, the coming war is presented from a different perspective. The main threat comes not from the Nazis, but from the Japanese.

Even so, the tension that comes up most often in the narrative (other than family squabbles) is not from the Japanese military invasions, but rather the obvious and occasionally awkward contrast between Jewish and Chinese culture. Both are painted as fairly superstitious, rule-based ways of life, but the rules for each are very different. Anya doesn't seem to have a very firm grasp of the religion she practices, and breaks her Jewish rules many times over the few days chronicled in the book. And occasionally, she will wish that she had paid more attention to Li Mei's Taoist charms and rituals, in the off chance that they might actually work.

In the beginning of Anya's War, we get a rough sketch of Anya's life in Shanghai, her friends, activities, and family relationships. Anya doesn't want to be an opera star. Most of us don't have to worry about that, but Anya does. Her mother was an opera star and assumes that her daughter will be as well. Anya writes about her long-standing desire to tell her mother the truth about her future dreams and her obsession with Amelia Earhart's disappearance in her journal which she calls "The Book of Moons."

But everything starts unraveling one day when she is rushing home to Li Mei (the family's cook) with goods from the market. She crashes her bike, the meat and produce are spoiled in the gutter, and she discovers that a baby girl has been dumped in the tall grass near her house. What should she do? She can't just leave the baby there to die, and she knew her mother would be very angry if she took a baby out of the gutter and brought it into the house. But Anya shows that she is beginning to mature as she decides over and over again that a baby's life is more important than her own hunger or comfort and that a baby's life is worth standing up for--to Li Mei, and if need be, her parents. But Li Mei recognizes that the baby is from a wealthy upper-class family, and decides to take the baby to her own mother in another town.

The one night that the baby, named Kisa, stays in their house, is the night before the Sabbath. Anya's family always has a big celebration dinner the evening before the Sabbath and for this particular dinner, Mr. Rosen invites a Jewish father and son that had just moved to Shanghai from Italy. Anya finds the son (who is her own age) extremely kind and attractive and feels only a little guilt about the fact that the night before, she was swooning over her classmate, Bobby Sassoon.

Anya and her little brother Georgi try to follow Li Mei when she takes Kisa away to her mother. But they get stuck in an area of town where some damaged Chinese planes accidentally drop a bomb! There are wounded people everywhere, and Anya has to help with the Red Cross while they look at Georgi's broken arm. Anya's mother is deeply affected by this crisis in the city and her concern for her children. She had been distant and cold to her family for a while after leaving her home and her occupation to come to Shanghai, but now her heart is bare again and she loves her children and her husband like before. After the family returns from the hospital, Bobby Sassoon is found waiting outside their house. He complains that he's been waiting over an hour and delivers an invitation to his birthday bowling party. With another hint of maturity, Anya realizes that Bobby is selfish and cares nothing about other people. Being handsome and popular doesn't make someone kind.

The narrative is strong, and the tensions in the book constantly propel the reader forward to the end. But there are some weaknesses in the book too. For one thing, there is relatively little character development. Anya and her mother both change a small amount, and there is an absolutely beautiful passage when Mr. Rosen is talking about loving and caring for his wife. But on the whole, all these different events come and go, and the relative effect on the characters is surprisingly minimal.

Another weakness in the book is the title. I honestly don't know what it refers to. In the story, World War II has not officially started, and though the growing tension and persecution was the main reason they moved, it is not clear that the title refers to that. I thought for a while that the issue of the Chinese "throwing out" their baby girls might be something that Anya herself would "wage war" against, but this is not the case either. She cares for the one baby girl, but doesn't seem to think about starting any kind of campaign to save the lives of Chinese babies. When the bombs went off, I thought that it could be the start of fighting or of some war, but the bombs turned out to be an accident when transporting unstable Chinese bombers to a safer location. It may seem picky, but I do think that the book as a whole would be a lot stronger if it had a title that clearly connected with the story. Without a clear connection between the title and the story, I have a very hard time discerning what is the main point of this story.

But even without a "main" point, reading this book could be fruitful. The book is based off of the author's (Andrea Alban) own experience, and provides a truly unique view of some Jews' experience in the late 1930s and early 1940s. I certainly learned a lot about Jewish and Chinese culture! I would say that you should approach this book as something light, interesting, and slightly educational, but don't expect it to be a page-turning thriller or a life-changing drama.

Alphabet Coloring Book - page 8

I suppose this one really isn't my favorite...and it's not very exciting since hippos are intrinsically heavy. But I had such a hard time thinking of any ideas at all, that this one really seemed like my best choice.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Alphabet Coloring Book - page 7

Due to a busy, but absolutely wonderful Easter weekend, I was only able to draw one more picture in the series for this next installation (G). I hope you like it!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Alphabet Coloring Book - pages 5&6

I drew this one after I went for the longest run that I've done in years. Perhaps I felt a little elephantine. But really, I love this one--these two may be my favorites so far.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Alphabet Coloring Book - pages 3&4

Here's the latest edition. I like this one a lot. :-) Let me know if you have suggestions--like, do you think I should add in a background? Or is it good with just having the letters and the figure?

 And here's the "Dangerous dragon"! I suppose he doesn't look particularly dangerous... but we can't be giving kids scary pictures to draw!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Pasta Pizza with Ground Beef

This meal is so easy and delicious that my husband (who previously has not been big on cooking) can make it by himself!

1 cup dried pasta (any kind--I like rotini best though)
2 cups (approximately) tomato sauce--like what you would use on spaghetti or lasagna
1/4 lb hamburger meat
mozzarella cheese
Italian seasoning
chipped cilantro

toppings: olives, mushrooms, onions, green or red pepper, bacon, sausage, etc.... take your pick!

1) Take a pie pan, and lightly grease it with butter or oil--especially the top part, which can get a little crusty while the pizza is baking.

2) Layer the dry pasta on the bottom, and then cover it generously with the tomato sauce. You can use more or less than the 2 cups, but make sure that the pasta is well covered. While cooking, the pasta need plenty of liquid to cook and become soft, and most of the liquid will come out of the tomato sauce. This will make the pasta full of flavor when the pizza is finished cooking!

3) Brown the hamburger in a frying pan and sprinkle it across the top of the sauce. Add any other toppings you might have on hand--the more the merrier! (You are welcome to use pepperoni or salami instead of the hamburger--I just usually have hamburger on hand.)

4) Cover the toppings with cheese. Then sprinkle chopped cilantro and the Italian seasoning on top.

5) Bake at 350F for about 30 min. Depending on your oven and the type of pasta you used, it make take more or less time. The past is the limiting factor, so whenever it's sufficiently soft, the pizza will be ready to eat. So if the pizza is smelling really fragrant, you might as well check and see if the pasta is done.

Alphabet Coloring Book - page 2

"B" of the coloring book. The real question is, once I've redone them all---how does one get a coloring book published? Anyone know?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Alphabet Coloring Book - page 1

I drew a series of alphabetical/alliterative coloring pages for my niece last Christmas. I'm thinking about revamping some of them and trying to put them together into a coloring book. What do you think? Good idea? Boring? Not enough to color? Too focused on learning/letters? I'll keep posting the pages as I finish them.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Chicken Curry 1 - my first try is a success!

It was only a couple years ago that I discovered that I absolutely love curry. It doesn't have to be really spicy--although I do enjoy a bit of spice. I just love the full, sweet flavor. But (surprise!) I've actually never cooked with curry before a couple days ago. I was looking through this small Thai cookbook that I have, browsing all the different curry recipes. This meal is very loosely based off of one of them, and though it's not authentic Thai cuisine, it did turn out delicious. (Paul said that it was like being at a restaurant!)

Obviously, I cook for two, so this recipe is adjusted for two people (plus leftovers that Paul can take to lunch.)

For the curry: (while this was cooking, I put on a pot of rice. I made 6 cups, but I think 4 would have been plenty.)

2 chicken breasts, cut into cubes
2 small onions
about 6 oz of mushrooms (fresh produce)
a handful of fresh chives
handful of fresh cilantro
3/4 cup coconut milk
1 tbs curry powder
3-4 cloves of fresh garlic
1 (4 oz) can green chilies
1/2 tsp chili powder

The cooking goes in about 3 different stages. The first is just browning the chicken for a bit. For this, I put some vegetable oil in a deep sided skillet (use a wok if you have one) and melted about a tablespoon of peanut butter in the oil. Once it was starting to bubble, I tossed in the chicken and let it brown for 3-4 minutes. Then use a slotted spoon to take the chicken out and put it aside for a little bit.

The next stage is dicing the garlic and onions and sauteing them in the oil. After they start getting soft and fragrant, add the mushrooms.

Once these cook together for a couple minutes, add the chicken back in. Then add a half a can (3/4 cup) of coconut milk, 1 tablespoon of curry powder, the can of green chilies, and 1/2 teaspoon of chili powder. After this cooks together for a few minutes, add a handful of chopped chives and a handful of chopped cilantro (be generous!)

As I often do, I just let this sit on the stove for a bit to let all the flavors mix. But it would be ready to serve any time after you add the chives and cilantro. (The chives will soften nicely if you let them cook for a few minutes.)

Monday, April 18, 2011

Creamy Potato Bacon Soup with Basil

This is a great staple that I like to make for dinner, and then use leftovers for lunches. The nice thing about this soup is that you can make it thick and almost stew-like, or really runny and soupy. (I prefer thicker.) It's also really easy to make large or small batches of it, depending on how much you have of certain key ingredients. If I'm feeling really energetic, I'll make some bread-bowls to go with it, but regular rolls, toast, or crackers also work well.

Here's the basic recipe:

1-2 lbs potatoes, any kind. (You can use leftover baked potato.)
2 large onions
5-10 pieces of bacon, cooked and chopped
milk (whole milk is best. Most recipes will call for cream, but I like to use milk because it's less fatty but still give the creamy texture.)

1) Put your soup pot on the stove over medium-high heat and put a little oil or butter in the bottom. (I like to use bacon grease, which I save and keep in the fridge.) Dice the onion (and 2-3 cloves of garlic, if you want) and saute them in the pot.

2) Once the onions are soft, add about 1/2 cup of white flour. (This is to thicken the soup.) Stir it around until all the flour is moistened, then quickly add a little water so the onion/flour mixture doesn't start to burn.

3) Chop up the potatoes and toss them in, adding enough water to cover them by a couple inches. If you're using a full pound of potatoes, I'd recommend adding 6-8 cups of water. If they are leftover baked potatoes, then you just need to wait until the water boils. If they're raw, you'll need to let the water boil for a while, until the potatoes are cooked.

4) While the water is heating up, add 3 tablespoons of sweet basil (I know this seems like a lot, but it's worth it!) and salt to taste. You'll probably want at least 2 teaspoons. I usually add a little while the potatoes are boiling, and then later, when it's almost done, I taste it and add some more if it needs it.

5) After the potatoes are soft, turn the temperature down to medium, and add the milk and the bacon. (I said 5-10 pieces because you can put in a little or a lot depending on how much you like bacon.) However many cups of water you added, add half as much milk. So, if you added 8 cups of water, add 4 cups of milk. Again, you can use whatever kind of milk you want, but whole milk will give you the creamiest taste without actually using cream.

6) At this point, I like to let the pot just sit on the stove for a while, letting all the flavors mix. If it's getting close to serving time, it's ready to serve, but it's ideal to have half and hour to an hour to just let the pot sit on the stove. Just make sure that you don't boil the soup after you add the milk.

Let me know if you have any questions or points that need clarification!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Potato Cakes with Rosemary and Garlic Salt

When your main-staple potato dishes become a little dull, here's a fun way to try something new. These potato cakes are fairly easy to make (especially if you have some kind of blender or food processor. I made these last night as a variation on what a friend made for me years ago. They turned out great. 

Chop up 4-5 red potatoes in a blender or food processor. Add  1 tsp of rosemary, 1/2 tsp of garlic salt, a dash of milk (probably 2 tablespoons), and about 3 tablespoons of flour.

Heat up some olive oil in a frying pan, and cook them like pancakes, turning them over when they start to get a little crispy on the bottom. (I think the crispy part is the best.) Each cake may take several minutes, so it might be a good idea to try using multiple pans, or a long pancake griddle if you have one.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Washington DC in the Spring: 2011 edition

Cherry tree blossoms over a picnicking father and daughter nearby the Jefferson Memorial

 A beautiful street in Southeast DC -- D St SE, I believe (near 3rd)

"The Hiker" -- a monument I love but know nothing about. This is on Memorial Bridge between Lee's House in Arlington Cemetery and the Lincoln Memorial

There are beautiful fields of daffodils planted between the highways, but they're accessible to industrious pedestrians (like me!)  

 The trees are starting to turn green around the WWII memorial. Each pillar represents a state or territory in the US, and there are two tall pillars--one for the Pacific and one for the Atlantic theaters of battles.

 This is Rosslyn, near where we live. Very city-a-fied.
 This is the Founding Fathers Memorial, a special island to one side of the National Mall. It's beautiful! I love weeping willows, they always make me thing of the penguin/tea scene in Mary Poppins.

Sleeping ducks are the cutest!

This is the little-known Women's Vietnam Memorial, dedicated to the women that served in the military and Red Cross during the war. 
 I don't think I'll ever be able to come here without thinking of the movie, Mr Smith Goes to Washington. I love that there is some guy just chilling out in the sun. It's odd to me. Perhaps it's because this monument is one of the closest to where we live, or perhaps it's because of the architecture, or maybe because it always seems to be a lazy summer day whenever I'm here. But this is probably the "homey-ist" monument for me.

 The Smithsonian Castle was the original Smithsonian, housing all the displays that people donated... becoming the first building of "America's Attic."

Fun on the Mall behind the Capitol

The Japanese Magnolia trees (that we often call Tulip Trees) sprung out early, while we still had several weeks of 40 degree weather (for which I was immensely grateful!) 

Even on a chilly, cloudy day, the cherry trees make it seem like summertime!
 Spring is a beautiful time to go explore the National Cathedral, and enjoy picnicking or lounging in the beautiful parks and lawns surrounding it.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Eggnog Scones

I created these a couple days ago when I went to make apple scones and discovered I had no apples. But once again, necessity has proven to be the mother of invention, and these "egg nog" (ish) scones appeared! Despite the fact that these scones, in fact, do not have any egg in them; they certainly have a mild egg nog flavor. They were a tad bit messy to make, but they have an incredible texture. I think they're absolutely delightful.

Oven: 425 degrees.

The first step is to mix all the dry things together in your main mixing bowl:
2 cups of flour (you'll be adding more flour later)
1/2 cup sugar
3 teaspoons of baking powder
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1/2 teaspoon of salt

Then, cut in 1/2 cup of butter till it looks like it's forming little clumps with the flour mixture.

Add 3/4 cup of milk and 1/4 cup of spiced rum. (woohoo!) Mix with a spoon.

Add another 1-2 cups of flour. The goal is that it should be thick, but also moist enough that it's very sticky if you stick your hand in it. Once it seems to fit this description, powder a surface heavily with flour and turn the dough (which might correctly be described as "goop") onto the surface. Fold it over in halves, alternating directions, and pushing down after each fold. (And you can add some more flour to the top if it still seems to sticky--it will get worked in as you fold.)

When it no longer seems sticky to push down on the top, cut the dough into scone-sized wedges and put them (separated) on a buttered baking sheet. Bake them for 10-15 minutes, taking them out as soon as they start to look a little golden on the top.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Corned Beef Hash

I made this last night for an easy dinner, and it turned out amazing. Seriously, if you have some left over corned beef, you've got to try this! (Yay for St. Patty's Day sales!)

This is probably good for 3 people, so you can adjust more or less of things depending on how many you're trying to serve. Here's what you'll need:

fresh garlic
red potatoes
tomatoes (canned or fresh)
corned beef
a little cooking oil

For starters, I peeled about 9 cloves of garlic. I know that sounds like a lot, but as they simmer in the oil, they get soft and sweet. Once the cloves are peeled, dice them and put them in a large skillet with a large dollup (3-4 tbs) of oil. Dice one or two onions and throw it in with the garlic. Leave the skillet uncovered and just let them simmer together for a while, until they become really fragrant (maybe 5 minutes.)

Next, dice two large red potatoes and add them to the skillet along with some diced tomatoes. I actually used a can of "Mexican stewed tomatoes" because I didn't have any fresh tomatoes, and this turned out great. So if you're using fresh tomatoes, I'd recommend adding a little bit of cumin and chili powder and maybe some red pepper--and maybe a little water (1/4 cup or so). The canned tomatoes would have a bit more liquid in them than the fresh ones. Let these simmer together, covered, about 10-15 minutes, until the potatoes are pretty soft. Stir it occasionally, but don't worry if it starts to look a little on the dry side, the meat will add some liquid.

Chop/shred the amount of corned beef that you want to add, and add that to the skillet. Let it all simmer together another 5-7 minutes, stirring occasionally... and then enjoy!