Recipe Wednesday: If At First You Don’t Succeed…

Not every recipe I try comes out perfectly the first time.

Case in point:  Last week, after our shopping expedition to the oriental market (see last week’s entry), we decided to take the plunge and try making Hot and Sour Soup, one of our favorite dishes.  We’d found a couple of recipes we could reference, and we stocked up on the ingredients we’d need.

Then we looked at the recipes and decided on what changes we wanted to make.  I’ve developed a sensitivity to mushrooms (sadly).  So we crossed those off the list.  Beloved Husband isn’t a fan of things like mung beans or bamboo shoots.  So off those went, too.

Which left us with pork, egg, and tofu.  Not a very colorful soup, but as long as it tastes good, that’s okay with us.

And then we carefully prepped everything.  We pressed the tofu to remove excess water.  We cut the pork into matchsticks and marinated it.  We built the broth, layering in ingredients.

And it looked more or less like you’d expect it to look–a dark brown broth with bits of tofu, egg, and pork swimming in it.  (My bowlful had sliced scallions sprinkled on top for color.)

But one bite told us:  Too much vinegar.

We’d gone to the effort of hunting down Chinese black vinegar, since that’s what the recipe called for.  For the record, Chinese black vinegar is a very strong, very fragrant vinegar.  Also very sour.  So we’ve decided that next time, we’re going to use two tablespoons of vinegar instead of five, and we’re going to use half Chinese black vinegar and half rice vinegar (which is much milder).  We figure we can always add a bit more later, if there isn’t enough.  But when there’s too much, there’s not much you can do about it.  I’ll report back on the results once we’ve tried it again.  (And it wasn’t totally inedible; it was just a lot more sour than either of us likes.)

Another not-completely-successful recipe we tried were Shu-Mai.  We started off with the recipe from America’s Test Kitchen, but again made modifications to suit our likes and dislikes (and also because we forgot to get the gelatin called for in the recipe, so we subbed egg instead).

This time, we had mixed results.  Beloved Husband didn’t want shrimp or vegetables in his shu-mai, so his batch ended up being a little bland–basically just pork and seasonings.  (They did look very nice; unfortunately, I forgot to take pictures.  Next time.)  When we make these again, I plan to add small amounts of vegetables he likes (spinach, perhaps, or a bit of finely-chopped broccoli), along with extra seasonings (and the gelatin we’d have put in if we’d had it).

On the other hand, my batch turned out very well.  Because I didn’t have a lot of pork on hand once we’d made the soup and Beloved Husband’s shu-mai, I decided to substitute a piece of flounder I had in the freezer instead.  Nor did we have the chestnuts called for in the original recipe.  So I put in some scallions and Napa cabbage.  Finally, my filling turned out a bit soupy, so I stirred in some panko crumbs to give it some body.

The results were extremely tasty.  I’d definitely make these again.  And I’ll even share the recipe with you:

Seafood Shu-mai

1/2 lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/4 lb. white fish (e.g., flounder)
2 ribs Napa cabbage
1 scallion
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons mirin (or sweet sherry)
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1/2 egg (yes, I know it’s awkward)
3-4 tablespoons panko crumbs
1/2 package round gyoza wrappers

Rinse shrimp and fish and pat as dry as possible.  Cut the fish into 1″ chunks.  If the shrimp are large, cut in half.  Place shrimp and fish in the bowl of a food processor and pulse 6-8 times, until the meat is fairly finely ground.  Transfer to medium mixing bowl and set aside.

Cut the Napa cabbage and scallion into 1″ chunks and place in bowl of food processor.  Again, pulse until fairly finely chopped (aim for 1/4″ pieces), about 5-7 pulses.  Add to fish mixture.

Combine soy sauce, cornstarch, mirin, rice vinegar, and sugar and pour over fish mixture.  Add ginger, salt, pepper and egg and mix until well blended.  Sprinkle in panko crumbs, one tablespoon at a time, and stir.  The mixture should hold its shape, but still be fairly soft.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or waxed paper.  Wet the edges of the gyoza wrappers and put about a tablespoon of the filling in the center of each.  (Work with 3-4 at a time to make the process easier.)  Leaving some space open at the top of each dumpling, pinch the sides shut, pinching into halves, then quarters, then eighths.  Gently squeeze the top of the dumpling so the wrapper sticks to itself, and use a knife or the back of a spoon to compress the filling that’s trying to come out of the top of the dumpling.  You should end up with something that looks like a little bag, with filling even with the top edge, and slightly bulgy on the bottom.  Set on parchment-lined baking sheet while you finish the rest.

Line the baskets of a bamboo steamer with parchment paper, poking ~20 holes in the paper to let the steam get through.  Place shu-mai in the baskets.  They should not touch each other.

Place steamer over boiling water and steam for 10-15 minutes, or until internal temperature of the dumplings reaches 160F.  Serve with chili oil sauce (a recipe I’ll post once I’ve tweaked it to my satisfaction) or dumpling sauce.  Makes 18-20 shu-mai.

So out of three recipes we tried, we came out with one keeper, and two that need a little tweaking (though we know where to start with that, at least).

What recipes have other people tried that maybe didn’t work out so well on the first outing, but which you later tweaked and cooked successfully?

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Recipe Wednesday: A Walk On The Wild Side

Last weekend, Beloved Husband and I decided we needed to take a trip to our local Large Asian Supermarket. The one closest to us is an H-Mart, a chain with stores mostly on both coasts, but a few scattered here and there across the midlands.

I love shopping at Asian supermarkets for a number of reasons.  For starters, they have great produce.  Stuff you can’t find anywhere else:  lychees and weird squashes and things you’re not even sure what they are.  And fresh herbs in good-sized bundles, rather than the anemic plastic packages found inWestern supermarkets.  Varieties you’ve never seen before, like five different kinds of eggplant.  FIVE.  Most local markets only have pathetic examples of the common type at best.  And even the “normal” stuff–apples, oranges, potatoes–looks better and fresher than what you find in the American chains.

Then there’s the seafood.  Fresh fish in types you might never even have heard of.  Ginormous shrimps–for $6.99/lb.  Sashimi-grade fish.  Even eel.  You might find some of those things at the overpriced specialty markets, but at much higher prices.

We actually went in looking for some key ingredients.  We’d found a recipe for hot and sour soup that called for Chinese Black Vinegar.  Finding it–amid rows and end-caps of bottles mostly labeled in languages we can’t read–proved to be something of a treasure hunt, but in the end, we emerged victorious.  And with a few other interesting-looking sauces in hand as well.

This time out, we also learned that going into H-Mart on a Sunday is a bit like going into Costco on a weekend.  All across the back of the store, tasting stations tempted us into trying things like rice cake, seaweed salad, and fish cake (the latter two of which I brought home with me).

Another thing most Asian markets stock in glorious profusion are frozen dumplings and stuffed buns of just about any kind you can imagine.  We keep saying that one of these days we’re going to go raid the place, then come home and have a huge dim-sum party.  I’ll need to pick up a few more steamer baskets before then, though.

Speaking of which, Asian markets are also great places to look for cooking equipment and serving dishes.  They’ve got rice bowls and chop sticks and woks and steamer baskets and…well, you get the idea.  And the prices are usually quite reasonable.

Perhaps the thing that amuses us the most, though, is that H-Mart (unlike some of the other Asian markets) has aisles set aside for foods from other ethnic cuisines.  So they have an Indian section, and a Middle Eastern section, and a Hispanic section, and yes, even an American section.  And while selection within those sections isn’t very deep–they have one brand of canned hummus, for example–it’s very broad.  So you can find things there that you might not even find at an ethnic market specific to that cuisine.  I was amused to fine decaffeinated Lady Gray tea, something I’d been seeking, in their “British” section, and some verjuice (juice made from unripened grapes, often called for in medieval and Renaissance recipes) in their American section.

So far, all I’ve made using what we brought home from our expedition was a salad of bean thread noodles.  I’m not thrilled with how it came out, though, so I’m going to tweak the recipe some more before I share it.  However, plans for supper tonight include making that batch of hot and sour soup, along with steaming some pork buns and maybe making some pork shu-mai.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

What other experiences have people had shopping at ethnic markets?  Any exceptionally good (or even bad) ones?

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Recipe Wednesday: Spice of Life

Last week I talked about stocking foods in my pantry.  I like to keep certain staples on hand to use as the basis of meals, and as emergency meals (in a pinch).  Things like canned goods, pasta, frozen meats, etc.

But equally important, at least to my mind, is having a well-stocked spice cabinet.  Adding a pinch of this and a pinch of that to otherwise-boring foods can bring them to life, and make them interesting rather than ho-hum.

But if you’re like me, you look at the prices of the teeny little jars of spices in the grocery store and think, “Yeah, if I didn’t actually want to have any money left for food….”

There are a couple of ways to deal with this.

Where I live, I’m lucky enough to have access to a couple of really good spice shops.  They sell spices either in jars or in plastic bags.  One will even measure out specific amounts of spices for you.  Why is that a good thing?  Well, for starters, you don’t have to keep paying for the spice jars over and over again.  You buy the jar once, then get just enough to re-fill it, which saves you a significant amount of money.  Also, it doesn’t even need to be an actual “spice jar”.  I keep my spices in 4-oz. canning jars.  They stack neatly, have wide openings that let me reach in and grab a pinch, can be labeled on top or side, and fit neatly in a drawer (which is where I currently store most of my spices).

And the second is that you can buy only as much as you’ll use before it goes bad.  While it’s true that spices don’t necessarily “spoil,” they do lose flavor over time.  In general, leafy herbs (thyme, sage, parsley, and so on) won’t hold their flavor for more than a year.  Ground spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger might be good for a little longer, but definitely not more than two years.  Whole spices, like black peppercorns and whole nutmegs will last the longest.  And anything that’s been in your cupboard for more than five years needs to be thrown out.  Period.

Other places that might sell herbs and spices in bulk are health-food and natural-food markets like Sprouts or Whole Foods.  If you’re really lucky, you might find an old-fashioned food co-op, an ethnic market, or a new-age boutique with an herb and spice counter.

And if you don’t have any of those options available to you, I’d suggest mail order.  Three companies I’d recommend are:

Like most cooks, I have certain herbs and spices I consider essential, and that I try to keep on hand at all times.  My essentials include:

  • Thyme
  • Sage
  • Rosemary
  • Italian seasoning
  • Bay leaves
  • Garlic powder
  • Onion powder
  • Ginger
  • Cinnamon
  • Cloves
  • Nutmeg
  • Black pepper
  • Kosher salt
  • Sea salt
  • Mild curry powder

With just that list, there’s a lot you can do.  Don’t be afraid to experiment; if you’re not sure how a spice will taste in a dish, sample a little bit on a spoonful of food before you throw it in.  Be conservative with your spicing, as you can always add more, but you can’t take the spices out once they’re in.

Note also that I recommend garlic and onion powders rather than salts.  It’s far too easy to end up with a too-salty dish when the salt comes mixed with the seasonings.  And yes, when possible, I prefer to use fresh garlic and onion, but sometimes you just need a dash of flavor, or you want something that will spread evenly throughout the dish.  But I also make sure my powders are as fresh as possible, so they has plenty of flavor.  Likewise, fresh herbs would be preferable, but they’re not always available or affordable.

(I also have a list of more exotic things I like to keep on hand.  But I think I’ll save that for a later post.)

So in order to save money and have the freshest spices available:

  • Buy the smallest amount you think you’ll use in the next year.
  • Buy in bulk and re-use existing jars.
  • Buy herbs and spices as whole as possible:  leaves rather than powders, seeds rather than ground.
  • Buy the essentials first, and augment as finances allow.
  • Season carefully.  Try a little at first, and add more if it works.

What spices and herbs do other people consider essential?  What other tips do you have for buying spices on a budget?

 

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Recipe Wednesday: Stocking Up

Hullo, blog.  (pets gently)

I know.  I’ve neglected you dreadfully.  And I am sorry.  I’ll try to do better.

Things haven’t been terribly exciting, I’m afraid.  In fact, the most exciting thing we’ve done in the past few weeks is to go grocery shopping.

I know, right?

On the one hand, grocery shopping can be frustrating, and expensive, and exhausting.  Especially if — like most folks with 8-to-5 jobs — you have to do your shopping on the weekend, when the stores are crowded and they’re out of everything that was on sale this week.

But it can also be very satisfying.  I know I’m probably weird, but it actually makes me feel good to haul home my load of groceries, and re-pack the “family-sized” package of meat into smaller portions for freezing, and line up all of my canned goods, and stow all of the produce neatly away in the veggie bins.

And there’s a certain amount of satisfaction in looking at the pantry — which, in my case, is a set of shelves on my enclosed back porch — and seeing all of the potential meals lined up and waiting to happen.

I’ve gotten into the habit of picking up certain staples and storing them away for the proverbial “rainy day”.  So should the zombie apocalypse happen tonight, Beloved Husband and I have enough pasta, tuna, and cream-of-whatever soup to keep ourselves in tuna casserole for at least a month.  Should we have an unexpected encounter with a skunk, there are enough tomato products to bathe us thoroughly.  We’re almost as well-stocked on creamed corn, canned carrots, and cranberry sauce.  And just for fun, there are stray cans of things like stir-fry veggies, baba ghanooj, and coconut milk.  (FYI, 1/2 lb. sauteed shrimp + 1 can coconut milk + 1 can carrots + 1 teaspoon curry = a very tasty soup!)

And yes, we have ramen.  Because sometimes, you just want ramen.

Likewise, there are certain staples we try to keep in the freezer.  1-lb. packages of ground beef, boneless skinless chicken breasts, pork chops, and bacon, for example.  And even though Beloved Husband doesn’t like seafood, I generally keep some shrimp and fish on hand.  I usually try to keep some ham tucked away, too, but we used it last month and haven’t replaced it yet.  And at the moment, we still have a whole (small-ish) turkey in there.  Because, hey, when you can pick up that much meat for $5 at Thanksgiving time, you do.

I try to keep a good base of ingredients on hand so that with the addition of just a few fresh things (vegetables, salad, fruit, etc.), I can produce a meal.  (I also try to keep my spice cabinet well stocked, but I think that’s next week’s entry.)  There are times when this has come in handy, like when Mother Nature suddenly dumps three feet of snow on you and you can’t get out of the house for several days.

So what sorts of things do other people keep in their pantries?

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Writing Thursday: NaNoWriMo Ate My Brain; or, How NOT To Do NaNoWriMo

Hello, blog.

{shuffles feet}

It’s been a while.

I know, I know.  I never call, I never write, I never even send e-mail.  I’m sorry.  I’ll try to do better, really I will.  It’s just that sometimes, I get distracted.

Like in November, when National Novel Writing Month–a.k.a. NaNoWriMo–rears its ugly head once again.

Now, I’ve done NaNoWriMo before and managed to keep at least a little bit of a grip on my life.  But somehow, this time around, it Just. Ate. My. Brain.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the idea behind NaNoWriMo is simple:  Write 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days–during the month of November, to be precise.  The goal is to learn to set your Inner Editor aside, to just write now and worry about editing later.

It’s not really all that hard.  You only have to write 1,667 words a day, every day.    That’s not that much; about two and a half to three pages, single-spaced.  Which isn’t nothing, but it’s normally quite manageable, especially if you take certain steps first.

For example, you really should:

  1. Have at least a rough outline of where the story is going.  Even if you’re a pantser (someone who plots “by the seat of their pants”), like me, you ought to have at least a vague sense of which direction the story’s headed.  By no means should you wait until 11:59 pm on Halloween night before you even decide which of the seven or so stories you’ve got rolling around in the back of your head you want to write this year.  (I’m not saying I did that, mind you.  I’m just saying you definitely shouldn’t do it that way.)
  2. Have at least some idea who your characters are.  Which is not to say you have to have complete character sketches or interviews with each of your main characters and most of the minor characters as well.  Nor do you have to have a detailed back-story for each.  But you really, really, really should have more than just a first name for your main character, and you really, really, really ought to have some idea of who your secondary characters are.  Just sayin’.
  3. If your story is set in a fantasy world, you really ought to take the time to at least sketch out a map of where your cities are in comparison to one another.  And if your world includes magic, you ought to at least think about how the magic works, even if you don’t write down a bunch of formal rules.
  4. And finally, you really shouldn’t plan to get in your car after work on November 1st and drive halfway across Kansas, then spend the next four days doing things like touring the Cosmosphere (unless you’re writing a sci-fi story with rockets.  Then it’s “research”!) and attending a steampunk convention, and driving home.  Even if one of your favorite bands (*cough* Abney Park *cough*) is playing.  Because that’s just crazy-talk.
I'm not blaming Captain Robert for my NaNo problems.  But if Abney Park hadn't been playing in Wichita, just 7 hours or so away... (Note: this picture is actually from their concert in Denver this fall.  Because of NaNoWriMo, I haven't gotten my pictures from Wichita uploaded yet.)

I’m not blaming Captain Robert for my NaNo problems. But if Abney Park hadn’t been playing in Wichita, just 7 hours or so away… (Note: this picture is actually from their concert in Denver this fall. Because of NaNoWriMo, I haven’t gotten my pictures from Wichita uploaded yet.)

So, yeah.  I failed at NaNoWriMo prep this year.

I was 5,000+ words behind by Day 5.  By all rights, I should have failed at NaNoWriMo altogether.  I’m still a bit surprised that I didn’t.

There were certainly days when I felt like giving up.  Days when it felt as though I was carving each and every word out of granite.  With a bobby pin.

But then I remembered this piece of sage advice about writing:

It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
–E. L. Doctorow

That’s exactly how it felt–as though I was picking my way through the night, never seeing any further than my headlights would reach, but always able to see at least someplace to go next.

The other thing that helped was that this time, for the first time, my Beloved Husband decided to do NaNoWriMo with me.  Which meant that instead of having to try to carve time out of the family schedule for writing, this time, writing was the family schedule most nights.  And I have to say that there’s something very comfortable about sitting in a room with one’s spouse, clicking away at our separate keyboards, each on our own separate journeys, but still traveling side-by-side.  (We were within a few hundred words of each other for most of the month.)

What finally saved NaNoWriMo for me was the fact that on about the 23rd of November, my main character did something I didn’t quite expect, but that turned out to be a defining moment, not only for her, but for the entire story.  After that, things started to flow more naturally, with less of a struggle.

Looking back now, I can see that about 2/3 of what I wrote during November was really the back story and character sketches I should have been doing in October.  So there’ll need to be some editing (no surprise there).  I had a hard time finding my main character’s voice, though I think I’m finally starting to get a handle on her.  She’s got just a touch of snarkiness to her.  Though after three years of writing in my steampunk/Victorian universe, I’m having a hard time remembering that her dialogue needs to be simpler, more direct.  I’ll get it figured out, though.

So that’s why I’ve been away for so long.  I’ll try to keep up better now.  ‘K?

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Dear Internet: Please Help!

AaaaaaAAAAAaaaaaAAAAAAAaaaa!!!

So…panic time.

Two days to NaNoWriMo, and I have no idea what I’m writing. So, as always, I’m turning to the Great Interweb’s Hive Mind for advice.

My options are:

——————–

Story_Title: The Daughters of August Winterbourne, vol. 3.5

Genre: Steampunk/Adventure/Romance

Quick_Synopsis: Celia and her sisters have gone to America as part of an exchange program with the Boston Technological Institute. But while she’s there, Celia has a second mission: To win the American people’s support for England in the war against Tarmania.

Description: This is actually the second half of the story I started last year, which stalled out at about 60K words. Since it’s me we’re talking about, it’s a sure bet that the story has at least another 50K words in it.

Notes: I need to finish this one, because I really want to write Book 4.

Pros: Already familiar with characters, plot, setting.

Cons: Strictly speaking, doesn’t meet the NaNo guidelines. Also, the story is kinda stuck, and I’m not sure how to unstick it.

——————–

Story_Title: A Taste for Magic

Genre: Fantasy/YA

Quick_Synopsis: A young woman longs to be an apprentice wizard, but while she appears to have talent, no one can find her magical specialty…until she cooks up a little magic.

Description: All the kids in the village of Dortinger dreamed of being selected for the wizard academy in Balincove. After all, the Balincove Academy took only the best, most promising of those blessed with the Talent – not to mention, those from the best families — leaving those with lesser abilities and connections to the hedge schools and private tutors.

Jessenia knew there was no way she would ever be selected for Balincove. She was an orphan; her foster parents were innkeepers, with no wealth or connections to smooth the way. Moreover, Jess didn’t appear to have any of the standard Talents – not Singing, or Dancing, or Potion Brewing, or Spellwriting, or even Charm Making. All she could do well was cook – which was lucky, since it seemed she was destined to spend the rest of her life doing just that.

Then the Balincove Wizardfinders made their annual visit to Dortinger, and Jessenia was bidden to make the best meal possible for them. To her surprise, thanks to that magical meal, Jessenia found herself among those selected for the Academy. Now she only has to prove to her classmates – and her teachers – that cookery magic can be just as potent as any other kind of spell!

Notes: I see this as being the first in a series of 3-5 books.

Pros: This one’s been kicking around in my head for a LONG time. Would be nice to finally do something with it.

Cons: On the other hand, it also seems like the kind of idea that deserves better than the rush treatment I’d have to give it during NaNo.

——————–

Story_Title: Diary of an Ugly Stepsister

Genre: Fantasy/YA

Quick_Synopsis: The story of Cinderella, as retold from the POV of one of the “ugly stepsisters”.

Description: You probably think you know the story — about poor, abused Ella, and her fairy godmother, and the pumpkin, the glass slipper, the prince and all that. And it’s true that some of it, at least, happened the way you’ve read.

But I’m here to tell you that there’s a lot more to the story than you know. You probably never stopped to think that maybe, just maybe, Ella’s “evil” stepmother and “ugly” stepsisters weren’t really that bad, just misunderstood. I suppose it’s only natural that you’d never consider that Ella was perhaps just a tiny bit spoiled and self-centered. And as for that godmother of hers…could it be that she was a few pence short of a shilling?

I should know. I was there. My name is Griselda, and I’m an Ugly Stepsister.

Notes: Another one that’s been kicking around in my head for a while now.

Pros: This one doesn’t take itself too seriously, so it might be good for a NaNo project.

Cons: I worry that there’s not enough story there to make it to 50K. Also, it might be hard to keep it fresh. Also, variations have been done.

——————–

Story Title: Miss Kendall’s Dilemma

Genre: Historical Romance (Regency)

Quick_Synopsis: Philippa Kendall tries to rid herself of an unwanted suitor by taking a friend’s advice – but it backfires!

Description: “Everyone knows that the fastest way to make a man lose interest in you is to tell him you love him,” said Pippa’s worldly friend, Marianne Somersworth. So when young Philippa Kendall, who is head over heels in love with the handsome young Viscount Wolfsholme, finds herself suffering the unwanted attentions of the nebbish Lord Hepstead, she decides to give it a try. But when Marianne’s advice backfires, Pippa finds herself accidentally betrothed to Lord Hepstead!

Notes: Again, not as well-fleshed-out as some of the other ideas here, but one with lots of possibilities.

Pros: Writing Regency is fun. And not too serious.

Cons: I don’t know these characters well enough to know whether I’d want to spend an entire month with them.

——————–

Story_Title: Kintheriny and the Locked Door (working title)

Genre: Fantasy

Quick_Synopsis: When Kintheriny’s Gran died, leaving her heir to her holdings, she sealed her magical laborium closed with cold iron. But when Kintheriny befriends a bedraggled young man who appears on her doorstep, she soon finds that she needs access to her grandmother’s spellcasting resources in order to save both their lives.

Description: Opening chapter of the story is here.

Notes: I really want to read the rest of this.

Pros: I like the characters, and I have some vague notes as to where the plot might go.

Cons: Also doesn’t meet NaNo guidelines, as I have about a chapter already written, and the idea is to start from scratch. Though I could work around that by simply subtracting the word count for the already-written snippet from my final count.

——————–

Story_Title: The Heart of Jasper’s Wood

Genre: Fantasy

Quick_Synopsis: Some doubted whether the lost city of gold at the heart of the wood even existed, but one thing was certain: Of the scores who tried to find it, the few who returned came back without their minds. So when Pendalmon’s little sister Talitha announced her intention to find the Heart of the Wood once and for all, he has no choice but to accompany her on her quest.

Description: They say you can wander Jasper’s Wood a hundred years and never find its heart. The Lady knows plenty of people’ve tried; the legends of the lost city of gold at the Wood’s heart draw them like honey draws flitterbats. Living on the edge of the Wood, as we do, we see ‘m all: gallant warriors, armor all a-gleam; noble wizards, sparks of magic flashing from their fingertips; doughty halflings singing brave songs; and even a plucky orphaned child, now and again. Ever’ so often, one of ‘m straggles back out, drawn and haggard and stark-staring mad. But most all we see are the bones Skitch drags home in his mouth after we let ‘im out for a run in the Wood. Which is why, the day my sister Talina announced her intention to find the heart of the Wood, I knew she’d gone insane.
(An entry from stillnotbored‘s monthly first line contest)

Notes: This one was actually a contest winner.

Pros: A strong first paragraph. Pendalmon’s voice really comes through.

Cons: Actually not sure whether the MC in this one is a brother or a sister. And I obviously have no idea where this is going next.

——————–

Story_Title: The Duck, The Squirrel, and Liretta

Genre: Fantasy

Quick_Synopsis: Liretta, down on her luck, tries to sell her dreams to the keeper of a mysterious shop, but he sends her away, telling her to come back when she has something more interesting for him. She doesn’t plan to go back, ever…but then she wakes up the next morning clutching two enchanted items from his shop.

Description: A sign in the shop window promised top dollar for broken promises and threadbare dreams. What can I say? I was cold and hungry and thoroughly tired of my own stink. As I grasped the grimy doorknob and pushed open the rickety door, a trio of silvery bells chimed a greeting. In their notes I heard promise and hope and even a trace of glory, and I caught a whiff of lilacs and fresh-cut grass. I made my way to the counter, past shelves and racks of oddities, tchotchkes, and just plain junk. Yet somehow, the shop was full of rustlings and whisperings my hesitant footsteps didn’t quite drown out. Then a clockwork squirrel, perched on a high shelf, seemed to wink at me. A duck-headed walking stick stuffed into an umbrella stand shifted to follow my progress, though when I glanced back, it clearly hadn’t moved. Feeling the skin on the back of my neck prickle, I approached the desk. A man with a mop of greying hair hunched over a leather-bound ledger, oblivious to my presence. Until I cleared my throat, that is. Then his head snapped up; his eyes glowed a pale yellow as they bored into mine, lancing into my brain like icy knives. I wanted to scream but I couldn’t move, couldn’t blink, couldn’t even breathe. With a sneer, he wrenched his eyes away. “Sorry. Not interested. I’m already overstocked with what you’ve got to sell. Come back when you’ve something….” He cocked his head, then smacked his lips and gave me a snaggle-toothed leer. “Something more succulent to offer me.” With a blink, I found myself back out on the sidewalk, my half-formed protest frozen on my lips, my hand on the grimy doorknob. I twisted it, intending to go back in and beg him to reconsider, but the knob refused to turn. Then I noticed that the sign was gone from the window, and when I peered inside, the shelves were empty, bare of everything but a thick layer of dust.
(An entry from stillnotbored‘s monthly first line contest)

Notes: As a first paragraph, the above sucks. But as the beginning of a chapter…

I do have a vague idea where this story might be heading. The duck-headed walking stick is an enchanted prince, and the squirrel is his fairy godmother. They got enchanted by the Shopkeeper, and Liretta’s job will be to free them.

Liretta, an orphan who has been living with her great-aunt, came to [Big City That’s Like London But Isn’t London] to become a governess to the child of a prominent government official. But once the official’s wife saw her—Liretta has some kind of obvious physical defect I haven’t determined yet: either she’s extremely short, or extremely tall, or has eyes that are two different colors, or some such—she refused to let someone like her tutor her precious little darlings. And so she turned Liretta out into the streets to beg.

Pros: I like the magical undertones of this world. And Liretta could be a fun MC to play with. Not to mention the duck and the squirrel.

Cons: I haven’t really worked out anything of a plot, beyond “the duck and squirrel are enchanted and Liretta has to free them.”

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Story_Title: Shifting Perspectives

Genre: Urban Fantasy/Mystery

Quick_Synopsis: Shapeshifter Jana only meant to frighten the boy who was bullying her daughter. But when the boy’s father turns up dead, she becomes the prime suspect.

Description: Her bones remembered the proper shape, even though it had been years, no, decades since she’d last shifted into that form. Jana bit back a cry as muscles twisted and tendons stretched. The promise she’d made to her dying father poked stiff fingers into her conscience, adding to her pain. It’s for Rissa. She had to save her daughter from the beast who tormented her, didn’t she? The pain faded and Jana straightened, looking into the mirror. A monster stared back. Vivid red lips, twisted into a parody of a grin, contrasted sharply with her pasty white skin. Raised eyebrows gave her an expression of perpetual surprise, and tufts of orange hair over her ears framed eyes that disappeared into the blue-pigmented skin around them. The nose, ah, that was perfect, bulbous and red, just as it should be. She smiled, revealing three rows of inch-long fangs. Yes! If that little brat bullying her daughter wasn’t afraid of clowns now, he soon would be.
(An entry from stillnotbored‘s monthly first line contest)

Notes: The idea here is that Jana, in her “scary clown” guise, finds the body. She shifts back, but not before she’s seen leaving the scene.

Jana comes from a family of shapeshifters. They can take any form they choose, though most pick a few “favorite” forms and practice them. Her shapeshifter husband died under mysterious circumstances (probably using his shifting talent to do something illegal). Their talents must be kept secret from the world at large.

Jana has a clouded past. Seems a “mean girl” high school classmate of hers committed suicide…after describing dreams involving a “scary clown” that looks a lot like one of Jana’s alternate forms. And the (handsome, single) detective working the case links the two cases…

Pros: This would be a very different genre for me. And it has series potential.

Cons: Don’t know if I could make a murder mystery that really worked.

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Story_Title: Undead In The City

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Quick_Synopsis: Nora didn’t want to be dead. But she didn’t seem to be alive, either.

Description: I was supposed to be dead, but for some reason, I hadn’t stopped moving yet.

At least I wasn’t in pain anymore. That was the biggest thing I could remember — the engulfing, overwhelming pain from the car accident.

I could also remember the EMTs pulling a sheet over my face as I lay on the ground at the side of the road. I remembered the feeling of being zipped into a body bag. And then nothing, until now.

Why was I still walking around? I looked down. Okay, maybe shambling was a better word for my current gait. I hadn’t quite fallen over. Yet. But I’m pretty sure I’d fail a roadside sobriety test based on that alone.

Not that I was on a roadside. I was in the middle of a field. I stumbled again and nearly faceplanted. When I looked down to see what obstacle had almost caused my downfall, my heart chilled.

It was a gravestone.

Notes: Obviously, our MC is a zombie. The question is, what is this story really about, besides being a story about a zombie that’s written from the zombie’s perspective?

Pros: Zombies are hot right now.

Cons: Not sure there’s enough idea here.

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Story_Title: Something Sinister in Sugarloaf

Genre: Weird Western

Quick_Synopsis: Forced to travel for her health, Philomena Kettlewell finds herself Out West in Colorado in 1880. But there’s something strange going on in the frontier settlement of Sugarloaf—and Philomena intends to get to the bottom of it—even if she has to ride a demon horse to get there.

Description: “Only horse I got is that’n there,” drawled the stable owner, “‘n you don’t want him.”

I looked at the horse standing in the corner of the corral, head down, dusty, hipshot, not even bothering to switch his tail to drive away the numerous flies. “Why? What’s wrong with him?”

The man snorted. “Look fer yerself.” He gestured me in the direction of the horse.

I walked around the outside of the corral to the corner. As I approached, I expected the horse to lift his head, to turn to look at me, but he did not. He just stood there, not switching his tail, not really moving at all, that I could tell. I wasn’t even certain he was breathing.

But when I stopped in front of him, he suddenly flung his head up.

A pair of glowing red eyes stared back at me, and in that instant I knew that this, this was my horse.

My hand shot out and snagged the lead rope as I turned back to the stableman. “I’ll take him,” I said.

Notes: This is a character I created for a Weird Western RPG that is now, sadly, defunct. But I like the idea of the plucky MC basically being a demon hunter who rides around on a possessed horse. The horse, by the way, talks—but only between sundown and sunup. The rest of the time, he’s essentially a zombie.

Pros: Weird west could be LOTS of fun. And it’d be fun to set a story in my home state.

Cons: Again, I don’t really have any idea as to where this story might be going.

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So…if you’ve made it this far, you probably have an opinion.  Right?  If so, then please take my quick poll:

Thank you!

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Recipe Wednesday: Dinner Improv – Faux Risotto

I have to admit–one of my favorite things to do in the kitchen is to poke through the fridge and cupboards and invent a dish from what I find.

In our house, lately, that’s meant a lot of tuna casserole, owing to a bit of an overstock of tuna and pasta.  Which isn’t a bad thing, necessarily.  But sometimes I want a bit…more.

I came home tonight just as the rain was turning into snow, big fat splats falling on my windshield.  It was the perfect night to come home to something one had thrown into the slow-cooker that morning.  Unfortunately, I’d lacked that degree of foresight.

Nevertheless, I was in the mood for some comfort food.  So I poked the garage freezer and found some salmon fillets, a bag of frozen cauliflower, and another of green beans.  Well, it was a start.  Hmmm.  Something like a risotto might be nice.

And it would have been, had my cupboards not been completely lacking in rice.  Though they did yield a jar of garlic alfredo sauce, and poking in the kitchen freezer got me the remainder of a bag of shrimp that really needed to get used up.

Faux Risotto

Not really risotto. But still tasty

But then I remembered a trick from my low-carb days, where I used to use cauliflower as a substitute for mashed potatoes and rice.  Hey, that could work.

After pondering for a few minutes, I came up with this:

Faux Risotto

1 12-oz. package frozen cauliflower (or equivalent fresh), cooked and drained
1/2 12-oz. package frozen green beans (or equivalent fresh), cooked and drained
1/2 lb. smallish shrimp, peeled and deveined (or use large shrimp and cut them into pieces)
1/2 lb. salmon, skinned
3 tablespoons butter, divided
1 tablespoon white wine (I used moscato)
salt, to taste
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
garlic powder or chopped garlic, to taste
pinch Italian seasoning blend
1/2 jar alfredo sauce
Grated Parmesan cheese

Place cooked cauliflower in the bowl of a food processor and pulse 4-5 times, until cauliflower is finely chopped but not pureed–about the consistency of rice.

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a large skillet and add the chopped cauliflower, the green beans, salt, pepper, garlic powder, and Italian seasoning.  Cook over medium heat for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally.  If the mixture starts to scorch, add a few tablespoons of water to moisten.

Meanwhile, melt 1 tablespoon butter in a small skillet over high heat until it just begins to brown.  Pat shrimp dry and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and garlic powder.  Place shrimp in skillet and cook, stirring frequently, for about a minute and a half, or just until shrimp curl up and turn pink.  Remove from heat and set aside.

In the same small skillet, melt the remaining tablespoon of butter.  Pat salmon dry and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and garlic powder.  Place in pan seasoning side down and cook for two minutes.  Add more seasonings and turn.  Cook for another 1.5-2 minutes.  Turn off heat and use a spatula or wooden spoon to break the cooked salmon into chunks.  It may still be slightly pink inside.  That’s okay; it’s going to get cooked more.

Gently fold the salmon and shrimp into the cauliflower mixture.  De-glaze the shrimp/salmon pan using the white wine; add to cauliflower mixture.  Cook until liquid disappears, about five minutes.

Fold in alfredo sauce and heat for another five minutes, until the mixture is heated through.  Be careful not to overstir, as this will break up the chunks of salmon.

Garnish with grated parmesan and serve.

Makes two servings.

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This turned out to be very tasty, and exactly the sort of comfort food I was looking for.  As an added bonus, the leftovers will become tomorrow’s lunch.

What sorts of fun dishes have you invented using just what’s in your cupboards?

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