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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Sweet as an Omelette

Does anyone ever actually try to make the recipes that are included at the backs of novels? Mostly cozy mysteries, but even sometimes chick lit or women's fiction books will include recipes. My book, Can't Stand the Heat, for instance.

That's right, my editor wants recipes. Not unreasonable, considering the whole book is about food! Well, love, romance, sex, restaurants, chefs, and punk rockers, too, but mostly food. I've got some ideas for what should go in--a cocktail or two, something sweet, and a preparation of pork belly that's pivotal to the plot. But even as I plan, I wonder if those recipes will be purely decorative, a marketing tool, not actually useful to or desired by readers.

I'm not sure why I'm so suspicious--I've actually cooked from a novel. In fact, one of Stinger's and my favorite breakfasts came out of Dorothy Sayers's classic mystery, Strong Poison. The recipe isn't in the back of the book, but the procedure for making a sweet omelette is meticulously detailed in the text (it turns out to be pivotal to the plot, too!)

All you do is add a bit of sugar to the eggs when you beat them lightly before adding them to the skillet of hot, foaming butter. (Stinger says powdered sugar is best, but I haven't noticed any difference one way or the other.) Swirl the eggs in the pan, a la Julia Child, and when they're just coagulated, dollop a tablespoon and a half of hot jam, jelly, preserves, fruit compote, whatever, along the middle. Then fold the eggs over and serve! If you want to get fancy, you could dust the top of the omelette with sugar and run it under the broiler.

So what's your favorite recipe that came from a work of fiction? Or do you stick to recipes developed by actual chefs, not novelists?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

More Snow

Every winter we've been in Ohio, we've said, "Next year, we're buying a snow blower." And we never do. Why is that lesson so hard to learn? It's like the lesson of exercise. Every day, I don't want to work out, and every time I do, I'm so glad I did. And then the next day, same dance. Why? Why can't I keep in my head for longer than 24 hours that working out makes me think more clearly, sleep better, feel stronger and healthier?

It's a mystery.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Snow Day!

Those words don't fill me with the same euphoric delight as when I was a kid in school. Now, I immediately translate them in my head to: Shovel Day! That's right, in the grand Ohio tradition, we got our first big snow before Thanksgiving. What a great state!

And okay, I'm exaggerating a little. It's like four inches, hardly even worth mentioning to someone in, say, Michigan or Wyoming or something. But for me, who grew up in Virginia and lived in Manhattan, snow that accumulates on the ground = BIG snow. VA just doesn't get that much, and in NYC, the snow mostly melts before it hits the pavement, because of the greenhouse effect of all those buildings. Stinger and I got out there and shoveled, like good little suburban bunnies, having learned our lesson last year. Last year we let it pile up, and then freeze over, and then pile up some more, until finally it was such a mess we actually couldn't do it. We had to call in professionals.

Such beautiful, chill, snowy weather calls for something special for breakfast. One of my favorite things to do is baked eggs (oeufs en cocotte for you francophiles out there). Baked eggs are very simple, old-fashioned enough to be unusual but not requiring anything more than I normally have on hand in my kitchen. The basic preparation is to heat a pan of water on the stovetop. Once the water is simmering, put your little buttered ramekins (they can be pyrex or ceramic) in the water with a tablespoon of cream in each. Heat up the cream, then add one egg to each ramekin, top with another tablespoon of cream, a dot of butter to keep the top from scorching, and stick the whole pan full of ramekins in a 375 degree oven for about 10 minutes. Baking them in the water bath allows for a more even distribution of heat and keep the eggs from sticking. Easy, deliciously decadent (yay, cream!), and infinitely variable. Julia Child, who introduced me to the recipe, recommends adding chopped chicken, ham, liver, crabmeat, or lobster to the eggs. You can also substitute bechamel or tomato sauce for the second tablespoon of cream. You can put in grated cheese like parmesan or swiss--really, anything you want.

I happened to have a bunch of fresh herbs languishing in my fridge, so I chopped up a mixture and added half a teaspoon to each ramekin along with the first tablespoon of cream. If you're curious, my fines herbes mixture consisted of flat leaf parsley, thyme, sage, and oregano. Delicious! Light and fresh, with good, noticable herb flavor.

Monday, November 17, 2008

More Setup

I'm about to begin the second book in my culinary romance series, and I'm gaining a whole new appreciation for series writers. From Nora writing as J.D. Robb to the chick that wrote the Babysitters Club books--how the heck do you guys keep it all straight?

Not that I have nearly as many characters/storylines/settings going as those long-running series; I mean, I've only written one book! Right? Except, no. Looking at my notes, I've already set in motion a complicated tangle of men and women with differing relationships to each other and things to work out between them. Not to mention, all with different hair and eye colors!! I'm going to screw up some tertiary supporting character's description and get letters from readers about it.

So what's the answer? There's supposedly an Excel spreadsheet out there that helps you track things like this, but I can't seem to get my hands on a copy. Kresley Cole recommended Microsoft OneNote, which helps you to keep all your text and audio notes in one place, plus allowing for images and graphics. Sounds pretty cool, except I have a Mac. So I nosed around a little and asked Stinger for his opinion, and he pointed me toward OmniOutliner and OmniGraffle. Very pretty, in that Apple way, and could be very useful. Have any of you ever used it? Or is there another program I should be looking at? Or should I quit whining and write it all out by hand in a style sheet like everyone else?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Rainy Day

Rain is pouring outside, which has prompted Stinger and me to curl up with steaming cups of coffee and the New York Times real estate section. That's right, we're looking at apartment porn.

Don't judge us.

My current favorite place is a 2-bedroom loft on Elizabeth St., on the east edge of SoHo. It's a great location, slightly off the beaten path of wild SoHo too-cool-for-you nightlife, but close enough to have access to everything fun. Steps from Vesuvius Bakery, Balthazar, Dean & Deluca, and of course, Cafe Habana, the best Cuban hole-in-the-wall in New York. On weekends, the line stretches around the block and people, even celebrities, wait hours to get into the tiny restaurant. This was the place where I saw a guy with the typical boho hair and dark aviators, dressed all slacker chic, totally hot in a scruffy way, and I thought, "Is that Johnny Knoxville? Oh, probably not, just a lookalike." Until he got up to pay and I saw his belt buckle: an enormous, ornate thing with 'Knoxville' engraved on it. So yeah!

I miss New York.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Top Chef: New York

Last night, I watched Top Chef for the first time. That's right, I was a virgin. It was a lot of fun, and now you all get to suffer through my observations about it--observations which have almost certainly been made countless times already, since the show's been on the air for years. But who knows? Maybe seeing it through fresh eyes gives me a fresh perspective.

First of all, a word about New York. My favorite city, the one I miss more than anything. It was fun to see all those different neighborhoods, and I thought it was cool that they sent the cooks to the outer boroughs. I did, however, have to laugh when the contestants checked into their apartment and nearly fell all over each other talking about how "this is the way to experience New York!" when they were clearly in New Jersey. A view of the Manhattan skyline from your balcony is not, actually, the best way to experience NY, in my opinion.

The show itself: I enjoyed the structure, with the many challenges and lots of people heading home right away. They start out with so many! It's hard to care much that first day, although I will say that most of those chefs are doing a great job of making me dislike them in thirty seconds of screen time or less. I was happy to see that first chick go, and I'm already rubbing my hands in glee for the day when that ridiculous surfer boy gets the boot. Pay more attention to the food and less to your hair! Also not a big fan of the European contingent; they give Europeans a bad name with all that exaggerated snottiness. And the woman who cooks by spirit guide? Uh, no. Out of all of them, I probably like Jamie, the tattooed exec chef at Absinthe in San Francisco the best. But second, I loved Patrick! (I know, big shocker.) Sad. Poor, sweet little gay boy, I knew he wasn't long for the competition, but I hoped we'd get him for at least another episode or two. Oh well.

I loved the judges. Jean Georges is one of my absolute favorite chefs ever. His food rocks my world and his persona on the show gave me the happy. So gentle and soft spoken! But quite firm and decisive. Stinger and I decided he's probably at the point in his career where he doesn't have to yell and scream; he whispers. In his kitchen, you can hear a carrot shaving drop. I like Tom, even if his food has never been as sublime, to me personally, as JGV's. And the Food & Wine chickie, thppbt. Whatever.

And then there's Padma. Seriously. What? Who is this woman? Leaving out the obvious jokes about a woman who clearly never eats being associated with a food show--watching the show for the first time, it was difficult to ascertain just what her role is. Eventually, Stinger and I decided that she's essentially Sigourney Weaver's character from Galaxy Quest: the gorgeous object of desire whose job is to talk to the computer and then repeat back exactly what the computer just said in full hearing of everyone.

Ariane stands nervously in front of the judge's table.
Padma: So what do you think about Ariane's dish, Tom?
Tom: I didn't like it.
Padma (gravely, to Ariane): Tom didn't like it.

It's as if Tom doesn't speak the same language as the chefs, so they need an interpreter. Hilarious.

Overall, I'd say that Hell's Kitchen is still by far my favorite guilty pleasure food show obsession. Gordon Ramsay is way more charismatic than anyone on Top Chef, and the smaller pool of starting contestants allows you to get invested in them quickly. Also, the graphics are way better. But Top Chef is in my DVR, and I'll definitely be tuning in next week.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Blank Page

I'm starting a new book today. I've been noodling it around in my head for weeks, even months, figuring out characters and what elements I needed to set up ahead of time in the first book, since the two are part of a series. But I still don't really know the plot, per se, so I'm struggling with how to go about eking out three chapters and a synopsis for my proposal.

Here's what I think. I think I need to write chapter one. Or at least scene one, get into the heads of the characters a little and see what that tells me. Then I need to look at my jumbled, jotted notes for this book and find any through lines that make sense, any places where the characters stories' intersect. And I need to read.

Does anyone else do this? To psyche myself up for a new book, I really like to read. In this case, since these are culinary romances set in the New York restaurant scene, I plan to read things like On the Line, Eric Ripert's new memoir of life at Le Bernardin, Roasting in Hell's Kitchen, Gordon Ramsay's memoir, and The Nasty Bits, a collection of essays and articles by Anthony Bourdain. I might reread Kitchen Confidential and Heat, the books that started my brain on the path that led to my first book getting sold.

It's partly research, partly steeping myself in these guys and their voices and their stories, hoping to skim a little authenticity off the top for my own personal use. Not that I want to cannibalize their stories; I've got plenty of ideas of my own! But the way they think and react? I'll take a crash course in that, please, with a side of kitchen lingo. Thanks.

What do you do when you're about to type 'Chapter One'? Any rituals that help you get going?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

Okay, not Sidney Poitier. Close, though! Stinger's very charming boss and the boss's even more charming wife. We had them over on Saturday to repay a memorable (well, hazy, actually, but in the good way) evening of Manhattans, dinner at the country club, followed by homemade limoncello (I think, although this is where the memory goes fuzzy) and the comedy stylings of Ron 'Tater Salad' White in hi def on the projection screen in their basement.

Naturally, I felt that we had to return an equally fun evening. So we had Bourbon Sidecars and champagne (Very Charming Wife's only drawback is a dislike for cocktails, which normally would make me sad, but since it gave me the opportunity to be a stellar hostess by guzzling Schramsberg, I held it together), dinner prepared by yours truly, followed by shots of bourbon (that was all Charming Boss's idea--the man can drink. Stinger's rule when drinking with him is to follow a three-to-one ratio), followed by our favorite comedian, Eddie 'Executive Transvestite' Izzard.

Dinner, though! That was fun. It took all day to prepare, although there were many elements of it that could have been made days ahead if I'd done better planning. We had a salad with homemade vinaigrette, then Braised Short Ribs with Citrus on a bed of celery root puree. Stinger did the dessert, which I'll get to in a minute.

We bought the short ribs from a local butcher shop I've passed many times and meant to check out, but until this weekend, never managed to. It's skeevy on the outside, like many butcher shops, but inside is clean and perfectly nice, in a there's-lots-of-raw-meat-in-here kind of way. The recipe (from one of my favorite cookbooks, Jean Georges Vongerichten's Simple to Spectacular--seriously, one of the most dud-free cookbooks I've ever encountered) calls for 4 lbs. of short ribs to be browned on the stovetop and then braised for three hours with a mirepoix of carrots, celery and onion, a bottle of fruity white wine, and a bunch of mixed citrus juice and zest.

It was great fun to cook, although I'm afraid with all the zesting, there may have been microscopic bits of me grated into the mix. And I wish I had pictures of how it all turned out, but we were too hungry and too busy serving our guests to bother with the camera at that point. You finish the dish with blanched white cabbage, to add a little bulk to the stew, and even more citrus flavor in the form of segments of limes, lemons, and oranges, to really bump up the tart juiciness of the sauce. It was delicious. Rather more trouble than I'm likely to take for just Stinger and me, but for a dinner party? Perfection. Because most of it was done in advance, so by the time our guests arrived, I could sit down and enjoy them rather than hopping around the kitchen in a frenzy of last minute tinkering.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Extreme Makeover Artist and General All Around Diva Goddess Kristen Painter has redesigned my blog! Is it not the most fabulous thing you ever saw? I actually, literally, gasped aloud the first time the page loaded up and I caught sight of those deliciously naughty figs.

Now, this talented lady is a wonderful writer, currently in the midst of a smashing hot urban fantasy type story which I'm desperate for her to finish so I can see how it turns out--but I think we can all agree that she has a second career waiting in the wings, just in case.

Thank you, dahling! My new, tasty blog look will inspire me to bigger and better things in the kitchen and on the page.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Chicken Stock for the Soul

I love making stock. It's one of my favorite things, actually, because it's wicked easy, tastes astronomically better than anything you can buy in the store, and uses "trash" ingredients that I'd otherwise just toss. Our default winter dinner is roast chicken and root vegetables (usually parsnips, turnips, carrots, and potatoes), another super simple supper that basically involves tossed a whole chicken into a roasting pan on top of a layer of diced veg, and letting the oven do its thing. Okay, so there's a little more to it than that, but not much. And when you're done stripping succulent, juicy meat from the chicken bones, you can use those bones to make a wonderful, rich stock.

Which is what I did last week. Just threw the carcass in a pot, covered it with water, and added a few aromatics: carrot, celery, onion, and a handful of black tellicherry peppercorns. My bouquet garni was built in, since I roasted the chicken with half a head of garlic and about a dozen branches of fresh thyme inside. Those flavor boosters made it into the pot along with the chicken. Then let the whole thing simmer away! You can keep it on low heat for hours, teasing more and more chicken essence out of the bones. Keep the surface relatively skimmed of fat and the obvious stuff that floats to the top. You can tell it's done when it smells good and the broth is a beautiful dark gold color. It will be darker than the store-bought crap. Because it's better.

Cook's Illustrated, my new magazine obsession, recommends ice cube trays as a convenient method for storing stock. You end up with a ton of the stuff, and it keeps great frozen, but thawing it can be a real bother. But not if you freeze it into cubes! It's brilliant, just pop those suckers out and into a saucepan to heat up and you've got stock in seconds. Whenever I have homemade stock on hand, I'm inspired to take a whack at those recipes where stock is a major ingredient so the extra wonderful taste will shine through: soups, risottos, things like that. I made a mushroom risotto last week, a risotto with pancetta and peas this week, and I'm contemplating some butternut squash soup. It's the season, after all!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Back to the Grind

It's hard, after the celebrations of last night, to contemplate just how much work still needs to be done to turn this country around. Similarly, it's hard for me, after the exhilarating moment of hitting 'send' and letting my editor take over obsessing about my manuscript for a while, to contemplate how much work is left to do once a book is finally finished. Which mine isn't, not by a long shot. There's every likelihood of at least one more round of revisions in my future, plus endless proofreading and answering of nitpicky copyeditor questions. But beyond the book itself, there's still more.

Marketing. The other half of the bestselling author coin--you have to be able to write a good book, sure, but what does that matter if no one reads it? Marketing is the means by which you connect readers who will love your book with the knowledge of and desire to actually purchase your book. Obviously, there are lots of ways to skin that cat. I plan to start with the basics: a website. A good portion of my advance money is earmarked for a webmaster, someone who will design a fun, flashy site that fits the tone of my books and draws potential readers into my world. I've spent hours poring over other author websites, sifting through the boring ones and trying to figure out what makes the good ones work. I like elements from many sites: the clean lines of Roxanne St. Clair's site, all the fun extras offered by Eloisa James and J.R. Ward, the cool navigation and slick style of Kresley Cole's site. But there's a lot out there, and no way I can get through it all. So I'm curious. Do any of you have favorite author sites? Things you wish your favorite authors would offer?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Happy Election Day!

And also, incidentally, my birthday. Yes! The world will either give me a fantastic or a horrific birthday gift today, depending on how the election turns out. All I want from YOU for my birthday is for you to vote! Vote your conscience. Vote your common sense. Vote vote vote for one of the two options below!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Stinger's Girlfriend

***WARNING: Do not read this post if making light of underage sex offends you!***

Stinger has a Lolita wannabe interning at his office! She's fifteen, into bands like Fallout Boy (which she considers 'punk'--oh, the misguided youth of today), and wears low-cut tops. She made him a rubber band stress ball. I had to be the one to break it to him that she was harboring a crush.

Now that he knows, he says he can see it for himself. For instance, he revealed that Lolita has recently been dropping hints about turning 16 soon. As in a daily countdown to the big day. He has wanted to point out to her that turning 16 will not actually make her legal, but has refrained. I think Stinger's favorite thing about this whole situation is how hilarious I find it. Apparently some wives would be upset. But seriously! She hasn't even lost all her baby teeth yet! I'm supposed to be threatened?

Stinger used to joke (during that frenzy over the Olsen twins turning 18, for instance) that girls should be considered fair game as soon as there was grass on the green. I know, ew. But he's learned the error of his ways and has a new standard now: all the adult teeth need to be in place before he'll consider you a woman.

Take that, jailbait! My man has standards.

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