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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Thursday Recipe - Chinese 5-Spice Mix and 5-Spice Cookies

More playing with spices. Looking for new ways to mix together the flavors I've already got. I've tried a few 5-spice blends from the store but wasn't impressed. With this one, using some whole spices makes a huge difference in the flavor. Not sure how to grind them up? Invest in a little cheap coffee grinder. They cost $10-$20. Just make sure you label it "spice grinder" and use it only for spices. It works wonders.

Another tip for getting great flavors out of whole spices is to toast them before you grind them. To do that, warm up a frying pan over medium-low heat. Add the whole spices and cook just for a minute or two until they get really fragrant. Pull them off the heat and let them cool down just a little before you grind them. The flavors will be more intense but be warned, they won't keep as long once you grind them so use this tip only for things you'll be using in the next day or two.

Just a note on whole spices - you can usually find them at any grocery store. If they aren't in the baking aisle, try looking in the hispanic or ethnic section. I found a nice size bag of star anise for a really good price in the Hispanic section. Look around, spend some time exploring what your local stores have to offer. Don't be afraid to try new things. The worst that will happen is you'll end up with something inedible and have to start over. Which really isn't that big of a deal. Don't be afraid of failing. Even if the cookies are ugly, they may still taste great.

On to the recipes!

Chinese 5-Spice Mix

3 star anise
12 whole cloves
2 t. whole black pepper
1 t. fennel seeds
1 t. ground cinnamon

Measure everything into a spice grinder. Pulse on high until the mix is a fine powder. Store in an airtight container for up to a month. Makes about 1 1/2 T.

For more flavor, try toasting the whole spices first.

Chinese 5-Spice Oatmeal Cookies

1/2 c. butter, softened
1/2 c. white sugar
2/3 c. brown sugar
2 t. vanilla
1/2 t. salt
1 t. baking powder
2 t. Chinese 5-spice mix
2 eggs
2 c. quick-cooking oats
1 c. whole wheat flour

Cream butter and sugars until fluffy. Add vanilla, salt, baking powder, 5-spice mix, and eggs. Cream until very smooth and light. Stir in oats and whole wheat flour. Mix together. Set aside for 30 minutes to let the oats soften and absorb any extra liquids.

Scoop by tablespoonfuls onto greased cookie sheet. Bake at 375 for 9-10 minutes.

If you want more spice in your spice cookies, feel free to add extra cinnamon or ground black pepper.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Book Review - Make it Mighty Ugly

I picked this up at the local library because the title intrigued me. I'm glad I did. Confession time: I've been burned out and in a rut lately. I don't want to write anything. I don't want to do anything but watch youtube videos. It's understandable considering my life over the last couple of years - graduate school, funerals, weddings, grandkids, teenagers of my own, health problems, and then moving across states. I gave myself permission to do as little as possible for a while. After two or three weeks, I'm itching to get back to work on my projects. Not this time. The joy has gone out of it. I feel pressured to make it perfect or not at all. I can't allow myself to make mistakes or mess up.

Except failures and mistakes are part of life and sometimes the best part. Failing doesn't mean you're no good or a waste of space. Failing means you learned something and have space to try again. Failing can sometimes result in something even better than what you originally planned. Sometimes failing means you need to learn more, stretch your wings farther, or try a different approach.

Make it Mighty Ugly is a kickstart to creativity. The author, Kim Piper Werker, has a series of exercises to help. First, identify whatever you do well. Group them into themes. Then move on to the voices in your head and what they say to you. You know what I'm talking about - the voices that tell you that you suck, that you aren't good enough, that what you make is awful. Kim talks you through how to beat those voices into submission. You can't make them go away, but you can minimize their impact on you.

She has several other exercises after that including the one that inspired the name of the book. Make something ugly. As hideous as possible. Not cute-ugly or even appealing, but downright homely. This lets you focus on making it. And she suggests taking no more than ninety minutes to make it, start to finish. The idea is to let go of your perfectionist and critical voices and just have fun. It's supposed to be ugly and lopsided and not perfect. The outcome isn't important, just the process.

This was the kick in the pants I needed. Why do I write? Why do I create? Because I enjoy it. It's fun. Except it hasn't been lately. So I'm going to make it ugly for a while, until I'm back in touch with the joy of the process. That doesn't mean writing a novel isn't painful and hard and a lot of work because it is. But even while slogging through it, there should be joy.

I think this is what NaNoWriMo is aiming for. If you aren't familiar with it, it's National Novel Writing Month, usually in November although it's expanded to April, June and several other months. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. It doesn't have to be good or even coherent. The goal is to get the words flowing, to get in touch with your inner creative writer. Sometimes pushing the words out is the only way. Somewhere in those 50,000 words of crap, there are nuggets of good writing. Sometimes even brilliance. Diamonds buried in the sand.

That's the point of Make it Mighty Ugly. Just do it. Allow yourself room for failure. Allow yourself to not be perfect every time. Allow yourself to find your own way of expressing your creative impulses.

The book is worth reading. I give it five stars and a big thumbs up.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Thursday Recipe - Berbere Seasoning and Ethiopian Inspired Pork Stew

I was looking for something different for dinner the other day. So I did what I usually do. I started browsing ethnic recipe sites. That's where I came across a recipe for berbere seasoning (the original is here). It's an Ethiopian seasoning blend. I tried something similar years ago and remembered it was good so I decided to give it a go.

I made a few changes and threw together the stew as a watchagot stew, as in, "What do I have in the fridge and the pantry?" Feel free to mix it up however you like.

If you're looking for something different than the usual, give this one a try.

Berbere Seasoning Mix

4 t. chili powder
2 t. paprika
2 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. ginger
1/4 t. cardamom
1/4 t. nutmeg
1/4 t. ground cloves

Mix everything together. Store in an airtight container. Makes about 4 T.

Ethiopian Inspired Pork Stew

1 T. oil
1 lb boneless pork, cut into stew meat size chunks (trim off the fat if you want)
2 T. berbere seasoning mix
1 16 oz can diced tomatoes
2 c. diced potatoes
1 c. sliced carrots
1 c. sweet potato, peeled and diced
1/2 c. diced onions
1/4 c. jicama, peeled and diced, OPTIONAL
2 t. salt

Heat oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add pork. Cook and stir for a couple of minutes, just until it starts to brown. Sprinkle berbere seasoning mix over the meat, stir to coat. Cook for another minute, until the spices become very fragrant. Remove from heat and set aside. The pork is NOT COOKED at this point, but it will be by the end.

Meanwhile, put everything else in a large saucepan. Add enough water to barely cover the vegetables. Stir in the pork. Cook over medium low heat for 1-3 hours, until the vegetables are tender. The sweet potatoes should mostly disintegrate into the stew and help thicken it.

Add salt to taste. Makes about 8 servings of stew.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Allure of Spices

Close your eyes. Now think about Christmas. Odds are, you're thinking about cinnamon and ginger along with Santa and twinkly lights. Smells have power. A single whiff can evoke a whole torrent of memories.

I love cooking partly because of the smells. Fresh baked bread. Cinnamon rolls. A pot of chili simmering away. A freshly peeled orange. Good cooking generates good smells.

I have a whole cupboard of spices and herbs. I grow herbs as ground covers and plants in my flower beds. They're beautiful as well as fragrant. Plus, they're very handy for cooking.

Spices and herbs carry so much flavor into food. If you limit yourself to salt and pepper, maybe a few commercial blends, you're missing out on a whole rich palette of flavors.

So take a risk, experiment. Familiarize yourself with some new herbs and spices. Try out a few. They aren't that expensive at the grocery store. I know Alton Brown might suffer a coronary, but go ahead and get the little bottle of pre-ground spices. The premium spices can be costly, but you can start small and cheap. Try growing a few while you're at it. We're planting our new yard with lavender, different mints, chives, oregano, and Russian sage. I can't wait to harvest my own fresh herbs this summer.

My son can't wait to harvest his own catnip. We'll see if it survives the neighborhood cats.

What herbs and spices do you like to cook with? If you have a recipe you want to share, I'd be happy to feature it on a Thursday. And feature a little about you if you want to share.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Thursday Recipe - Chicken Enchiladas by Guest Author Cami Checketts

Please welcome Cami Checketts to the Far Edge of Normal! If you're looking for some fun, sweet, clean romance, she's your gal. I've read several of her books and enjoyed them. She's here to share a great recipe and her newest release: The Feisty One. It sounds like another good read.

Take it away, Cami!

It's always exciting to choose a setting for a new book. I like to find a place that I enjoy visiting. The Feisty One is set in Island Park, Idaho where my dad's best friend has a beautiful cabin. I have so many great memories in the cabin and the forest surrounding it. I wanted to share a recipe that also reminded me of Island Park. We end up cooking a lot more than we usually would on vacation because the cabin is so isolated. My favorite is chicken enchiladas because they're delicious, easy, and can feed a huge group. This recipe is what I would do for my family of six, but I double or triple it when we go to the cabin.

Chicken Enchiladas
One to two pounds cooked and shredded chicken (depends if your children are carnivores like mine)
One eight-ounce package cream cheese
One cup salsa
Two cups shredded colby jack cheese
One package taco seasoning
One can pinto or black beans

Mix everything together and either roll in flour tortillas or I've gotten so lazy lately I cut up the tortillas and layer them with the mixture. Top with colby jack or parmesan cheese. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake 350 for 15-20 minutes. Enjoy!

Buy the The Feisty One is available for only $2.99 or if you're an Amazon Prime member you can borrow it for free.

Can he hide his heart or will the reporter take everything? 
Maryn Howe isn’t intimidated by billionaire recluse, Tucker Shaffer, or his enormous log cabin in Island Park, Idaho. Maryn needs this interview and she’ll get it at any cost, even if the last four reporters were physically removed from his presence.
Tucker Shaffer has no desire to change his less than flattering public image; but his PR people persuade him to give it one more try. Ready to make nice with whoever comes through the door, Tucker is blindsided by a petite blond with an extra-large personality. As the snow piles up and the questions keep coming, Maryn discovers the secret Tucker Shaffer has spent the last four years torturing himself with. She suddenly sees him in a new light and she flees—right into danger and into Tucker’s arms.
But the danger has just begun and now Maryn has to make a choice—trust in Tucker or lose it all.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Monday Inspiration

I love this quote. I want this to be my epitaph when the time comes. I want people to look at me and say, "She had a light within."

Background artwork from Check out his beautiful work. I think he really needs to offer them as posters. I'd buy them all.

What would you like on your tombstone? Funny or serious, I'll reward at least one commenter with a free audible book code. Why not check out my latest release, Soul Windows, on Audible? Science fiction and fantasy stories ranging from silly to serious, delve into strange worlds from my imagination. Includes "Second Chances" and "Thief's Ransom", two shorts from the Altairan Empire.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Thursday Recipe - Fruit Cobbler

This is what I do with fruit that a bit too soft or bruised to eat fresh. Or those apples that get all soft and mushy. Or the little bit of fruit cocktail in the back of the fridge. The point is to use up whatever fruit you've got sitting around that needs used.

Apples, pears, and berries are traditional, but why not throw in that lone kiwi fruit or those few slices of pineapple or that peach? I'm not sure bananas would work, and melon is probably not a good choice, but go ahead and be adventurous with your leftover fruit. What have you got to lose here?

Fruit Cobbler

5-6 c. cut up fruit - apples, pears, plums, berries, rhubarb, peaches, pineapple, etc, whatever you have lying around
1/2 - 1 c. sugar, depending on how sweet the fruit is and how sweet you like your cobbler
1/4 c. cornstarch
1 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. ginger
1/4 t. nutmeg
2 c. oatmeal
1/2 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. melted butter

Prepare fruit - Wash thoroughly and peel if desired, I usually don't. Remove pits and seeds. Chop it into bite-size pieces. Drain canned fruit and discard the juice. Don't bother thawing frozen fruit or berries. They cook just fine from frozen.

Mix fruit with sugar, cornstarch, and spices. Spread in lightly greased 9x13 cake pan.

Mix oatmeal, brown sugar, and melted butter until crumbly. Sprinkle over the fruit filling.

Bake at 350° for 45-55 minutes, until fruit filling is bubbly and oatmeal topping is browned.

We eat this for breakfast as well as dessert. Top with whipped topping or ice cream or yogurt.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Art of Kintsugi

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of mending broken pottery with a lacquer laced with gold dust. It's also a different mindset - that broken things are not necessarily destroyed. That beauty can come because of the scars and damage. It's resonated with me a lot lately.

Nerdwriter1 on YouTube has a beautiful video about it:

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, aka the Mormons, gave a beautiful speech on the topic as well:

After struggling with my own depressive episodes, this talk gives comfort. As does the idea that the weak and broken places in our hearts and minds can become strong and beautiful once again through the love of our Savior and His gift of the atonement and His healing touch.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Thursday Recipe - Basic Pudding from Scratch

I posted this a while back, but it was buried in a multi-recipe post. It's good enough and easy enough it needs its own post. So here it is.

Pudding from scratch
1/3 c. sugar
2 T. cornstarch
1/8 t. salt
2 c. milk
2 t. vanilla

Mix sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a 2 qt saucepan. Stir in milk. Cook and stir over medium heat until mixture thickens and boils. Boil and stir for 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate.

To keep it from forming a skin while it cools, take a large piece of plastic wrap and press it on top of the pudding inside the pan. Remove and discard the plastic when the pudding is cool. Whisk the pudding until smooth. Put in a tightly covered container and refrigerate until ready to use or serve.

Variation: Use 2 c. of canned coconut milk instead of regular milk. Dairy free and just as tasty!

Pair it with homemade graham crackers and berry sauce for a delicious dessert.