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Check out my science fiction series - The Fall of the Altairan Empire

Monday, January 30, 2017

Thoughts on Trying New Things and Synergy

I asked my FB friends a question the other day - What food have you wanted to cook but haven't yet? I got a whole lot of answers. I was mostly looking for ideas for recipes to try. (If YOU have a recipe you want me to try and post on my Thursday Recipes, just add it to the comments.)

One of the suggestions was Scotch Eggs. I've never tried them before so I did some research and found some recipes. They're hard-boiled eggs wrapped in sausage, rolled in bread crumbs, and baked until the sausage is cooked. A lot of my friends love them, according to their comments. For me, they were just kind of meh.

I adore sausage, especially the bulk breakfast sausage. Biscuits and sausage gravy are one of my all-time favorite comfort foods. Plain sausage patties fried until they turn a lovely dark golden color? Yum! Sausage in scrambled eggs? Bring them on! So when I tried out Scotch Eggs, I was ready to love them. But I didn't. I would have been just as happy, or even happier, with a hard-boiled egg, or even a fried one, and a sausage patty. It would have been faster, too. Scotch Eggs, for me, were just sausage and a hard-boiled egg. Maybe I'm missing something there, but it was too much work for the flavor.

Which brings me to my second thought on synergy. Synergy is when something becomes more than the sum of its parts. Like sausage gravy. It's a basic white sauce with sautéed onions and sausage added. But it's more than just white sauce with stuff in it. It becomes a whole new dimension of sausage flavor and goodness. Add in the biscuits and it's heaven on a plate. Also a heart attack, but we won't go there right now.

Wrapping sausage around a hard-boiled egg didn't become some new magical thing. It was just sausage and an egg. There was no synergy.

Same thing with a lot of movies I've tried to watch lately. They had all the elements of a great story - good actors, exciting premise, good story, etc - but somehow it just never came together into something bigger. The magic didn't happen. It's not something that can be forced, but it can be fostered.

When I write, I'm hoping the synergy happens, that the story becomes more than a series of connected scenes, that the characters become real people in my head and hopefully the reader's head. It takes a certain chemistry between my words on the page and the reader's imagination before it can happen. Since I can't control my readers' minds, I'll just keep putting words on paper the best I can. Some days the magic happens, some days it doesn't.

I've got several projects going right now. I'm aiming for a late spring release for "Blue Mage 1: Shadow Nothings" and I'm working on another short story collection. I'm also working on several other novels and projects that aren't ready to be announced yet. I'm also having fun making jewelry and playing with my yarn collection. I'm looking at opening an Etsy shop for those later this summer. So stay tuned for new releases coming up. My long break, wherein I wrote way too many academic papers, is over. I'm back!

Hopefully, with synergy!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Thursday Recipe - Fresh Rolls

Not to be confused with rolls fresh from the oven, these are cold appetizers served in Thai restaurants. They are similar to egg rolls, except instead of being fried, they are served uncooked. The filling is mostly shredded salad with a bit of cold cooked meat. Feel free to mix these up by adding your favorites. I've given a few options but there are no rules, except make what you enjoy eating.

The wrappers on these are rice wrappers, so if you're GF, these are perfect. I enjoy them because I like to eat with my fingers and salad is usually not finger food. They also taste good. Look for the rice wrappers in the Asian section of your local grocery store, or at your local Asian market if you're lucky enough to have one nearby. They are sometimes labeled "Vietnamese Spring Roll Wrappers." They are round flat things that look like a cross between stiff plastic and wimpy manhole covers.

Serve these with some warm Peanut Sauce for dipping.

Fresh Rolls

12 rice wrappers
Cold water for soaking
4 c. shredded lettuce (I prefer red leaf or romaine for this)
1 c. cooked rice OR 1 c. cooked thin rice noodles
1 c. cooked crab or krab or cooked shrimp (peeled and de-tailed)
1/2 c. shredded carrots
1/4 c. green onion, chopped
Fresh Thai basil leaves, optional

Put cold water in a shallow dish, like a plate with a high side or a large pie pan. You don't need it deep but you do want it big enough to cover a whole rice wrapper at one time.

Put one rice wrapper into the water, get one side completely wet, then carefully flip it over. Let it soak for about a minute until it starts to soften. Carefully remove it from the water. It is delicate and will tear easily, but you can always just patch up the holes. Lay the wrapper on the counter or a plate.

Place 1/3 c. lettuce on the wrapper in a log about halfway down. Add a couple tablespoons of rice/rice noodles next to the lettuce. Add in a few chunks of crab. Add a pinch or two of carrots and green onions along the side. Add a few fresh basil leaves if desired.

Now carefully fold up the bottom 1/4 over the fillings. Kind of squoosh the filling tightly together. Fold the sides over to make an envelope. Roll it up into a log shape. This is very similar to making a burrito if you've ever folded one of those together.

Place the finished spring roll on a plate and set aside. Repeat with the rest of the wrappers and fillings. Keep them in a single layer on the plate or use multiple plates if needed. The rice wrappers will stick to each other. Refrigerate for an hour or two or serve immediately with plenty of peanut sauce.

If you want to reserve them for later that day or the next day, they really don't keep longer than that, wrap each individual roll in plastic wrap and refrigerate.

This video shows how to roll them up:

Monday, January 23, 2017

Book Review - The Dragonbone Chair

Tad Williams - Sorrow, Memory, and Thorn trilogy
Book 1 - The Dragonbone Chair

I'm reading through my old favorite books again. This is my third time through the trilogy and I'm loving it just as much.

The Dragonbone Chair starts the story with young Simon, a servant in the king's castle, the Hayholt. Life for Simon is pretty much cleaning and avoiding cleaning and acting like a typical teenage male in most ways. Until old King Prester John dies and his son takes the throne and bad magic starts creeping in and old legends start to come to life.

Despite being over 700 pages long, the book doesn't drag. There is plenty of action and adventure. Tad Williams writes flowing prose, so even the descriptive passages draw you in. He takes his time and lets the story evolve.

If you are a fan of Tolkein's Lord of the Rings or Terry Brook's Sword of Shannara, this trilogy is right along the same track. It's high fantasy with a rich imaginative world, plenty of characters, swords and magic, elves and trolls, good and evil.

My only complaint is that a lot of the names are real tongue twisters.

My rating - a solid 5 stars.
PG mostly for violence

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Thursday Recipe - Frog Eye Salad, Dairy-free and Gluten-free

This is one of those classic recipes. It's called a salad but it's more of a pudding. The traditional recipe calls for canned fruit, whipped topping, and a tiny pasta called acini de pepe. There are lots of recipes out there for it. It's been a staple potluck dish since the 1960s or 1970s. I like it for dessert. It's sweet, but not too much. Plus it's fun to serve frog eyes.

My daughter, the one with food allergies, adores tapioca pudding for some reason. I couldn't stand the stuff when I was her age. So I had an epiphany today. I could combine the tapioca pudding with the frog eye salad and make something she could enjoy along with the rest of us.

This recipe is similar but uses just fruit juice.

Frog Eye Salad, DF GF version

1/3 c. pearl tapioca (tiny little white balls, look for it in the baking section of the grocery store)
1/3 c. sugar
3 c. almond or coconut milk (the drinking kind in a carton)
1/2 t. vanilla extract
1/8 t. salt
1 18-oz can pineapple tidbits in pineapple juice
1 16-oz can fruit cocktail in water or juice
1 8-oz can mandarin oranges
whipped topping (optional)

Mix tapioca, sugar, milk, vanilla, and salt in a 2-quart saucepan. Let sit for 30 minutes. This helps plump up the tapioca so it cooks more evenly and has a smoother texture.

Cook and stir over medium heat until the mixture thickens and boils. Remove from heat and let cool, stirring occasionally. (You just made tapioca pudding if you want to stop here and refrigerate it.)

Open the cans of fruit. Drain. (Save the juice and use it instead of milk in the tapioca pudding half of this recipe. It makes a nice fruity pudding.)

Stir the fruit into the tapioca pudding. Stir in whipped topping if you want a lighter texture, but it's totally optional. Serve immediately or refrigerate and serve later.

Makes about 6-8 servings.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Book Reviews - Andre Norton Classics

I've been re-reading my collection of Andre Norton sci-fi (this link takes you to a full bibliography). If you have never read Andre Norton's books, you are missing out. She wrote classic science fiction, time travel, fantasy, cross-worlds stories, adventures, historical fiction, YA, and pretty much everything in between. I discovered her books when I was in sixth grade and I've been a huge fan ever since. Here's my take on the two I read most recently.

Quag Keep, 1978
This was not one of Andre Norton's better stories. It's a novel based on one session of Dungeons and Dragons back in 1976, according to the foreword Norton wrote for the book. The whole story felt contrived and forced to me. It also wasn't one of her books that sucked me in and kept me up until 3 am turning just one more page. So unless you are a big D and D historian, this one is probably one to skip. If you are into D and D history, this blog makes some interesting points about the game and the book.

My rating - 3 stars mostly for bleh plot and characters. It was okay, but nothing wonderful.

The Sioux Spaceman, 1960
Again, not one of Norton's better stories but still entertaining. In this book, Earth has had quite a few nuclear wars that have wiped out almost all white people. The main character for this book is a Native American from the Sioux tribe. This flavors a lot of the book. I found it to be the most intriguing aspect of the story, which is basically humans reach the stars only to find an alien race is more powerful and has enslaved most of the other aliens they've encountered. Our intrepid Sioux warrior makes contact with the natives and concocts a plan to overthrow their alien masters. It was a fun diversion but the tropes which would have been fresh back when this was written are pretty much overdone these days and pretty stale. Norton did have some interesting twists on the idea, though. This one is worth a read if you can find it.

My rating - four stars.

Uncharted Stars, 1969
This is a sequel to The Zero Stone and, in my opinion, it's better than the first book. Murdoc Jern, a pretty useless person with a load of personal baggage, inherits a weird gem in the first book, one that a lot of people are willing to kill for. Strange things happen, and Murdoc ends up stranded in space with a mutant alien named Eet. Things happen and they end up rescued and things mostly sorted out by the end of book one. Book two, Uncharted Stars, opens with Murdoc and Eet on a quest to find the source of the Zero Stones, the weird gem from book one.

The story takes some interesting twists and turns and has plenty of action and adventure. I would have enjoyed it more except the character of Eet really gets under my skin. He's an overbearing arrogant bossy little animal that I really wanted to strangle more than once, but Murdoc dutifully does whatever he's ordered to do. In many ways, Murdoc is the stupid teenager who can't think for himself and when he tries, he screws things up horribly. Eet treats Murdoc as a servant, a lesser being. Eet also has his own agenda that he won't share.

I can't give this one a complete thumbs up mostly because the characters are mainly unlikeable and the relationship dynamics are really messed up. It does hold together and makes sense within the society Norton has created for these books, though. The books are worth reading at least once mostly because the range of planets and ideas hidden within the mediocre storyline are incredible.

My rating - four stars.

I have a lot more Norton to read still. She was very prolific. Many of her books hold up well, despite being written forty or fifty years ago. It also gives me hope to see she wrote some brilliant stories in a huge array of imaginative settings, but she also cranked out some plodding stinkers, too.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Thursday Recipe - Philly Cheese Steak Sandwiches

I had leftover roast the other day, mostly because I'm still cooking for a horde but we have diminished to only half a horde in the house. Plus I found beef roasts on sale for a great price and bought a five-pounder. That was a lot of meat. It was very tasty as a roast, and then again as these sandwiches. I didn't season the roast with a lot of extras when I roasted it, so it worked well for this recipe.

Philly Cheese Steak Sandwiches

1-2 lbs leftover beef roast
1 small yellow onion
1 small red onion
2 T. butter
1/2 red bell pepper
1/2 green bell pepper
Cream cheese
Shredded Monterey Jack cheese
Horseradish spread
Rolls, whatever kind you want (I used a dark brown wheat one and it was very tasty!)

Slice the beef very thinly. This doesn't work unless the roast is nice and cold. Make sure you are slicing across the grain. If you look closely at the meat, you can see long fibers. Slice across those, not along those. I found it easiest to cut the roast into smaller chunks first, then find the grain and slice it really thinly perpendicular to the fibers.

The roast needs to be warmed up. I used my trusty crockpot, but you could also do this in the oven. Put the slices in your vessel of choice and add 1/3 c. leftover pan drippings or hot water. Cover and cook 1-2 hours on low in the crockpot or 15-20 minutes in a 350° oven.

Meanwhile, slice the onions into thin slivers. Sauté in the butter over medium heat until very soft and tender. (I used my crockpot for this, too. I got a really nice three crockpot unit for Christmas that works wonders for us. They are on the small side but that's a good thing these days. I put the meat in one, the onions and butter in another, and a side dish in the third. Turned them all to low for 2 hours, and dinner was pretty much done.)

Wash the peppers, remove the seeds, and slice them into thin slices. I like the peppers raw and crunchy, but if you like them cooked, go ahead and sauté them with the onions.

To assemble a sandwich, slice the roll in half, then spread with cream cheese and sprinkle a couple tablespoons of shredded cheese on top. Add horseradish, mustard, pickles, etc, if you want. Then layer on the hot sliced meat, onions, and peppers. Let it sit for a just a minute so the meat can melt the cheese, then enjoy.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Testing Out

I spend a lot of time making stuff, mostly with a crochet hook and yarn. It's something I can do when I'm tired and can't think straight, which is more often than I'd like due to health issues. I can't write at those times, or I would focus on that. So I do other things that I enjoy. But my house overfloweth with yarn doohickies. I don't need anymore. My kids and grandkids receive plenty of yarn objects. I still have loads of things around.

So I'm toying with ways to sell them. As long as I make enough to keep feeding my yarn habit, I'll be happy.

My latest foray is into  People post things they are willing to do for you, starting at $5. I've got a couple of things up there. I'd appreciate it if you would check them out, see if it's something you'd enjoy, and if so, please order something. If not, no worries. I'm mostly testing the waters to see how well the site works for me.

Here are the gigs I've got going:
Itty Bitty Kitties

Rose Petal Sachets

Check them out! If you note in your buyer's instructions that you read about the gig here, I'll throw in something extra for you if you order.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Thursday Recipe - Sweet and Sour Chicken

My daughter loves Chinese food, and most of it is fine for her. But the breaded dishes aren't and those are what we love the most. So when I ran across this recipe, I had to adapt it to my cooking style and tastes and try it out. It was delicious. It takes a bit of work, but the end result is good.

Sweet and Sour Chicken

1/2 c. sliced onion
1/2 c. sliced red bell pepper
1/2 c. sliced green bell pepper
2 c. sliced carrots
1 c. pineapple chunks
1/4 c. oil
2 lbs boneless skinless chicken, cut into bite-size chunks
1/3 c. garbanzo bean flour
1/3 c. cornstarch
1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. pepper
1 egg, beaten
1/2 c. sugar
1/4 c. ketchup
3/4 c. red wine vinegar or rice wine vinegar
1 T. soy sauce
1 t. garlic powder
1 t. ginger

Grease a 9x13 baking pan. Spread onion, peppers, carrots, and pineapple in the bottom. Set aside. Heat oven to 350° F.

Heat oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat.

Put chicken, garbanzo bean flour, cornstarch, salt, and pepper in a large plastic bag. A gallon-size one works great. Shake well until the chicken is evenly coated. Pour in the egg. Shake it around until the egg is evenly distributed. I found this works best with partially frozen chicken.

Drop about 1/3 to 1/2 the chicken into the frying pan. Use tongs to separate the pieces. Cook for 3-4 minutes, until it starts to brown. Flip the pieces over and cook another 3-4 minutes. You don't need it cooked all the way through, just browned and the coating set. Move the chicken to the baking dish when it is browned. Repeat with the rest of the chicken.

In a small mixing bowl, combine the sugar, ketchup, vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, and ginger. Stir well. Pour over the chicken and vegetable mixture.

Bake uncovered at 350°F for 30 minutes. Serve over hot rice. Garnish with chopped green onions if you want.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Happy New Year!

It's that time of year where most people spend some time reflecting on the past and setting goals for the future. Most of these resolutions die well before January does, though. I have a terrible track record for following through on my goals, so this year I'm focusing on things that I can accomplish, that I can follow through.

1 - Instead of losing weight, I'm going to focus on eating healthier. Less sugar, less refined carbs, more whole grains. More fruits and vegetables. Smaller portions. And I'm going to work on curbing that horrible snack monster that comes out every day around 3 pm.

2 - I will exercise, even if it's only fifteen minutes a day of stretching. No matter how horrid I feel, I will do at least that much.

3 - I'm going to be kinder and more patient, especially with my own family. I'll stop and think before I speak.

4 - I will do something creative every day. Writing is always good but sometimes it just takes too much energy, so on those days, I'll doodle something or cook something new or take a photo or play with yarn. As long as it's something that gets the creativity moving, however sluggishly, it's good.

I think that's a good list for me. What are you goals? What habits are you working on establishing or breaking?