Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Narnia Winter

Over February vacation my daughter (pictured) and I drove two hours north to Sugarloaf Mountain.
The peak was hidden in frozen mist. After one miserable day of white-outs, we abandoned downhill
for cross-country skiing at the base. Away from the crowds and the chairlifts, it felt like stepping
through the wardrobe into Narnia. The snow fell light and soft on empty trails.

The Sugarloaf Outdoor Center has 90 km of groomed Nordic trails with warming huts serving hot cocoa and tea.
The base lodge has homemade soups, oven roasted turkey on fresh baked bread and apple brownies.
 Yep, skiing is all about the food.

I worked up an appetite trying to keep up with the 40th fastest girl skier in state division C.
My daughter patiently halved her pace to my poky 8 km/hour and gave me helpful pointers.

She'll make a fine captain of the Nordic Ski Team next year (announced last night!)

When we returned home, our driveway was hidden under a foot of fresh snow.

The trees were frosted white. I stood for a moment in awe of the familiar transformed.

Best of all, my husband had done all the shoveling and tidied the mudroom.

Bluebird sky returned as my kids headed reluctantly back to school.

Scout led the way into the woods, wagging her tail.
I'm trying to train her to run outside the tracks.

The early morning light was blue and the air was still.
Snow showered down from the drooping pines randomly.

I couldn't have dreamed of a moment this beautiful so close to home.

At the cove I paused to listen to the Canada geese. Then I followed my tracks back the way I'd come.
More snow is falling this morning through Friday; hopefully it won't turn to rain. I love a real winter!

Blog Watch: Congratulations to Hana @Mama Shujaa for her story published in African Roar 2012! My friend and neighbor Susie Dorn is asking for suggestions on 50 books to read before turning 50. Congratulations to Carol@Flower Hill Farm on the birth of her grandson! Les@A Tidewater Gardener is hosting his annual Winter Walk-Off through March 19; this post is joining as a ski-off!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Recipe for Shepherd's Pie with Beef, Ale and Mushrooms

A juvenile bald eagle sometimes joins us on our daily ski to Harpswell Cove but not when I bring my camera. 

My daughter took this photo of me.
Winter sports build up a big appetite. After Nemo dumped 26 inches of snow, I've been skiing every day with my friends and our dogs. My kids are on their school's Nordic Ski team. A crowd pleaser for the whole family is my husband's Shepherd's Pie. Henry (a Brit) crafted this recipe from his memory of the pub classic. The dark ale adds a special flavor, and Hobgoblin is one of our favorite British imports. You can also substitute another dark ale like Guinness; this dish is popular in Ireland too. The alcohol will evaporate with cooking so it's fine for the kids. I usually drink Hobgoblin with the meal and toast the marvelous chef. Cheers!


1 ½ - 2 lbs minced beef (low fat eg 94%)
1 medium onion and/or 1 leek, chopped small
2-3 carrots, sliced
1- 2 stalks celery, chopped small
large handful of mushrooms, chopped to taste
½ tsp salt + fresh ground pepper
3 cloves garlic, crushed or minced
½  tsp fresh thyme (dried is ok)
1-2 tsps (approx) fresh rosemary, chopped fine (dried is NOT ok!)
2 tbs flour
1 tbs tomato paste
½ - ¾ 12 oz bottle Hobgoblin or other dark ale
¼ - ½ cup chicken broth
1 tsp Worcestershire Sauce (or Soy Sauce, or steak sauce)
1 tsp redcurrant jelly
1-2 tsps dijon mustard
½ cup each of frozen peas + frozen corn
3-4 large russet potatos, peeled and quartered + some butter and milk

Cooking Instructions:

Set oven to 400%
Boil the potatos in lightly salted water till cooked (piercable by a knife, about 15-20 mins).   
Mash with about ½  tbs butter and some milk.
Brown the meat in a large casserole/dutch oven over medium heat with some olive oil, adding the onions/leeks, carrots, celery, mushrooms and garlic and finally the herbs and salt/pepper.
Add flour and stir together. 
Add tomato paste, then ale, cook till it reaches boiling (and the alcohol boils off) then add stock until you’ve got the right consistency (firmish)
Add mustard, worcestershire and redcurrant seasonings to taste
Cover and cook over v. gentle heat for 15-20 mins
Add frozen peas and corn
Put in a casserole dish, top with the mashed pots  (make sure the top is totally sealed by the pots, or the meat will spill over)
Brush lightly with butter (if wanted) and roughen the surface with a fork to get better browning plus crispier top
Cook in oven until browned, about 20 mins.

It tastes much better than it looks!

Click on the "recipe" label below to find more of Henry's recipes. He's a wonderful cook.

Recipe Watch: check out Gloria @ Canela's Kitchen. She posts her recipes in both English and Spanish. We have a special interest in her Chilean recipes since that is part of my husband's ethnic heritage.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Beautiful Creatures movie review & Blizzard photos

Three years ago I reviewed Beautiful Creatures on its print debut and interviewed the authors, Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. Yesterday I went to a prescreening of the movie adaptation, which will be released on Valentine's Day. Familiar elements were the star-crossed lovers and the casters (the politically correct term for witches and wizards), but the deep south setting with Gothic undertones made this young adult novel unique. Dripping moss, crumbling tombstones, a dilapidated plantation and a timeless small town translated well to the big screen.

Richard LaGravenese's clever screenplay was true to the spirit of the book with a few modifications. Alice Englert (Jane Campion's daughter and a dead ringer for Debra Winger) was well cast as caster Lena, bringing more heart to the character than she had on the page. Alden Ehrenreich is a likable Ethan, a popular jock who reads Kurt Vonnegut and dreams of college. His bond with Lena is as much intellectual as passionate, quite unusual for a teen movie. Amma, played by the superb Viola Davies, is now the librarian. I missed Amma's southern cooking, but that was worth sacrificing to avoid the cliché of the big-hearted African American maid. Sadly, there is only a hint of her voodoo magic. Uncle Macon, no longer a vampire, is a more compelling character played by Jeremy Irons. The actress who steals the show is Emma Thompson, delighting in her wicked role.

Beautiful Creatures is a teen movie that parents won't mind seeing with the kids. The few violent scenes are not especially graphic and sex is barely implied, making it appropriate for tweens as well. The special effects, although quite cool, are a bit distracting; this is a big budget Hollywood production. The literary tie-in To Kill a Mockingbird is weaker in the movie, but it's still there. For complexity and depth, a 563-page novel beats a two-hour movie. Still, fans of the book won't be disappointed, and hopefully the movie will lead more teens to discover the marvelous book, the first in a series, so expect sequel movies too.

Reviewers Disclosure: I watched a free prescreening but was not paid to write this review.

For those of you who asked how Maine fared in Blizzard Nemo:

Our back deck
Henry shoveling after 6 hours

Scout in the backyard with 26 inches of snow

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Out of Nowhere by Maria Padian

Out of Nowhere by Maria Padian tackles the issue of post 9/11 prejudice toward Muslims in America. In this soon to be released young adult novel, Somali war refugees are pouring into Enniston, Maine. This working class town can barely house the impoverished families let alone educate the shell-shocked children, who barely speak English. Ethnic tensions flair when the mayor makes a plea in the newspaper to discourage Somalis from inviting more family members and friends to her overwhelmed community.

As the teenaged protagonist reflects, "You gotta wonder who the genius was that came up with the plan to put a bunch of Africans in Maine, the coldest, whitest state in America."

For Tom the issue becomes personal when a legal challenge is made to block Somalis from playing varsity soccer. His team's best player, Saeed, is Enniston's only hope for beating their rich, entitled rivals from Maquoit. Other problems ensue when the fasting month of Ramadan falls in soccer season and also when Tom is made to do 100 hours of community service tutoring Somalis after he vandalizes Maquoit High School. As Tom struggles to understand a foreign culture, he begins questioning his own values and those of his family, friends, girlfriend and neighbors.

All the characters were well developed and multi-dimensional, with the sole exception of Tom's girlfriend, Cherisse. I couldn't believe that a smart, empathetic boy like Tom would date a mean girl only because she was hot, but then again, I'm not a teenaged boy. Myla (a college student) and Samira (Saeed's smart sister), who volunteer with Tom, were more compelling female characters. Tom's Franco-Maine family was also well portrayed. The writing was pitch perfect for teens:
"He [Saeed] pronounced each word hesitantly. As if it were a new food he was tasting for the first time." 
"The other two guys? I didn't know them, but word from Ismail was that they were dipshits, too. So what we all knew was that the fight on the bus had nothing to do with race or religion. It was pure asshole-ness. Of course 'Assholes Fight' is not a newspaper-selling headline in the post-9/11 world. 'Ethnic Tensions Flare' sure is." 
"You know, Captain, outside of your family I doubt anyone much cares where or whether you go to college," Myla continued. "But as a healthy, smart white male growing up in one of the safest, most prosperous countries in the world, you know what? You have a moral obligation to do something worthwhile with your life and not be an asshole. Just sayin.'"
Some readers might be put off by the swearing and underaged drinking in the opening pages, but this book is deeply grounded in morality and in religion, both Islamic and Catholic. There are consequences to reckless behavior, and the characters eventually learn from their mistakes. Some problems, however, are less easily resolved, reflecting the real world.

The Somali diaspora and a mayor's plea in the local newspaper happend for real in Lewiston, Maine back in 2002. Author Maria Padian, who has a background in journalism as well as in young adult fiction, spent weeks in Lewiston and in Portland getting to know Somali families and the community volunteers. In the real world, Maine is making progress. Somali students at my children's school are well integrated and are thriving in a tolerant, supportive atmosphere.

I read Out of Nowhere in 24 hours; it was that hard to put down. The story was richly textured and beautifully rendered. Here is real Maine, not "vacationland." I'd strongly recommend this book to teens as well as to adults. The complex themes would make for fascinating classroom and book group discussions about race, religion, immigration and class differences. It teaches toleration without sounding preachy.

Out of Nowhere will be reviewed in The New York Times Books section this coming weekend. The book and ebook will be released next week on February 13th, 2013.

Disclosure: Maria Padian is a friend, and I borrowed an ARC for review on my request. I'll be buying a hardcopy at our town's independent bookstore. Brava, Maria!

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@Barrie Summy