Five Favorite Things: November

Five Favorite Things: November

Thanksgiving: Gratitude, family, and food makes for a perfect day. I love that Thanksgiving is all about once a year recipes, giving you the option of trying things too complicated or too time consuming to make during non-holidays. If Thanksgiving prep stresses you out, Half Baked Harvest has a great Thanksgiving guide here.

Sweaters: October was so hot. My birthday felt like summer, which is only nice in theory, and I have been eager for fall weather. But now in early November, the leaves are finally brilliant fall colors, and it’s time to put on a cozy sweater and sip hot cocoa. My new favorite sweater is this cardigan from Loft.

Soups: I feel like everyone else gets excited about chicken noodle and cheddar broccoli soups, and while I like both of those, neither one is my favorite. I am a French onion fan, and it’s my goal to perfect my own French onion soup recipe this winter.

NaNoWriMo: I’m not attempting to write the full 50K that is the standard for National Novel Writing Month. I’ve tried it. I’ve failed. Repeatedly. It leaves me in a bundle of nerves for 2 to 3 weeks and then in a state of rebellion for the remainder of November. I’m 43 now, and I know better than to do this myself and my physical and mental health. A 25K start on a new novel is my goal for this challenge.

Books: This fall has been a great one for book releases. These are the late October/November releases that I am most excited about.

Witchy Poached Pears

Witchy Poached Pears

Poached pears are easy, delicious, very seasonal, and they make your house smell like heaven. I don’t know if Yankee Candle makes a poached pear candle but they really should. 

If you are a Michigander, I have a shortcut for you: Poach your pears with Leelanau Cellars Witches Brew, which is a spiced red wine. If you have a Costco membership, you can buy an oversized bottle for $9.99, although if you buy the oversized bottle, you will want to use 3 cups for this recipe, not the full bottle. Out of state with no access to Witches Brew? No problem. Just add either mulling spices or two chai tea bags to the red wine of your choice.

I strongly recommend making your poached pears sundae bar style. Everyone likes to customize their own dessert, and poached pears are quite versatile.  My sundae bar suggestions can be found directly below the recipe.

  • 4 to 6 pears, peeled
  • 1 bottle of Witches Brew (or other red wine with either mulling spices or 2 chai tea bags)
  • 1/3 cup maple syrup
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  1. Combine the wine, maple syrup and vanilla in a medium sized pot and bring to a boil.
  2. Reduce heat to medium and add pears.
  3. Simmer for 20 to 25 minutes.
  4. Remove pears and set aside.
  5. Turn the heat up on the remaining wine sauce.
  6. Reduce the wine sauce to half.
  7. Serve pears with wine sauce and your preferred toppings.

Sundae Bar Toppings:

  • Ice cream. Suggested flavors include vanilla, caramel, and cheesecake
  • Caramel sauce
  • Chocolate sauce
  • Nuts 
  • Chocolate chips
  • Crushed toffee

Pictured is my poached pear with sea caramel Halo Top, chocolate chips, and crushed praline pecans.

Dark and Shallow Lies by Ginny Myers Sain (YA): Book Review and Book Club Menu

Dark and Shallow Lies by Ginny Myers Sain (YA): Book Review and Book Club Menu

Seventeen years ago in the tiny Lousiana island of La Cachette, ten children were born in a single summer. They call themselves the Summer Children.

La Cachette is an island so isolated there is no cell service or internet access. The residents make their living from the tourist trade, marketing themselves as the Psychic Capital of the World, selling psychic readings, crystals, and love potions. In addition to the approximately 100 human residents, La Cachette is home to venomous snakes and a 13-foot alligator named Willie Nelson.

Grey, one of the Summer Children, has only spent her summers in La Cachette since the death of her mother nine years before, but she looks forward to her high school graduation, as it will allow to move back to La Cachette full time to spend time with her closest friends, the other Summer Children, especially her best friend, Elora. However, a few months before Grey returns to La Cachette for her seventeenth summer, Elora goes missing.

When Grey returns to the island, she is determined to learn what happened to Elora, but no one in a town of psychics seems to have any insight as to what happened the night her friend went missing. As Grey begins to dig, she starts confronting all of La Cachette’s secrets, such as the death of the twins, Ember and Orli, thirteen years earlier and the legend of the local bogeyman, Dempsey Fontenot.

Ginny Myers Sain’s debut novel is the perfect read for spooky season. I’ve read several books over the last month trying to find the perfect October book to review, discarding many along the way, and this was the only one that wowed me. The appeal is due to several factors: the rich Southern gothic tradition this is part of, the appeal of island fiction, and of course, a well-crafted mystery.

Dark and Shallow Lies is a very atmospheric novel. I have had a soft spot for gothic fiction set in Louisiana ever since my teenage years of binging Anne Rice, and this novel makes the most of its setting. With the very first pages, the reader is given the impression of a wild and dangerous world, endless humidity, and secrets. Beauty and the grotesque live side-by-side in La Cachette. Part of La Cachette’s mystique is that it is an island. Novels set on islands from And Then There None to Lord of the Flies create tension simply through isolation, as each islander lives only at the mercy of the other islanders, with the outside world feeling almost unreal.

The mystery is intricately plotted with many twists and turns along the way. As this is a YA mystery, there are no characters so drunk that they become accidentally unreliable narrators, which is a bonus. (If you have read a lot of mysteries/thrillers marketed for adults, you have stumbled into many an alcoholic narrator along the way.) I’m assuming the missing girl plot gives this away, but in case it doesn’t, this book is definitely for the older end of the YA spectrum, not for your 10-year-old niece. There is violence, drinking, drug references, etc. It’s ideal for teens beginning to age out of YA and for adults. I’m planning to buy a copy for my 17-year-old stepdaughter who reads mostly adult fiction these days.

As La Cachette is an easy day trip from New Orleans, the ideal book club menu would contain New Orleans specialities. This month’s book club menu consists of hot Cajun shrimp dip and muffuletta crostini.

Hot Cajun Shrimp Dip

This is a mash up of three recipes I found, plus it’s slightly lightened up with extra veggies, Greek yogurt in place of mayo, and reduced fat cream cheese. Given that this recipe is pretty much cheese upon cheese, my attempts at lightening it up are probably the equivalent of having Diet Coke with a Big Mac meal to save calories. But I feel like a Louisiana grandmother would still judge me for trying to lighten it up at all. My hypothetical grandma is known as Miss Dominique in her neighborhood and she tells me that when your time is up, your time is up, so just eat the cheese.

This dip can be served with crackers and bread. If you have club members who can’t or don’t eat carbs and/or gluten, raw veggies, plantain chips, and Nut Thins are also good dippers.

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • ½ cup celery
  • ½ sweet onion, chopped
  • 4 green onions
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 lb shrimp chopped
  • 1 tb creole seasoning
  • 1 8-oz package cream cheese (⅓ reduced fat)
  • 5 oz nonfat Greek plain yogurt
  • ½ lemon juiced
  • 1 cup pepper jack shredded
  • 1 cup cheddar shredded, divided
  • ¼ cup parmesan shredded
  1. Preheat oven to 375°F.
  2. If you don’t own an oven-safe skillet, spray a medium casserole dish with nonstick baking spray and set aside.
  3. Heat butter and oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
  4. Add the red bell pepper, celery and sweet onion and cook until the onions are translucent.
  5. Add the chopped shrimp, garlic, and creole seasoning and cook until the shrimp are opaque.
  6. Stir in cream cheese, Greek yogurt, scallions, and lemon juice.
  7. Add in the 1 cup of pepper jack and ½ cup of cheddar one handful at a time. Once the cheese is evenly incorporated, add the next handful.
  8. If your skillet is not oven proof, pour the shrimp and cheese mixture into the casserole dish.
  9. Top with remaining ½ cup of cheddar and ¼ cup of parmesan.
  10. Bake for 15 minutes and then broil for an additional two minutes.

Muffuletta Crostini

Muffuletta sandwiches are an Italian contribution to New Orleans cuisine. Full of ham, cheese, and olives, they are the type of sandwich that gets better as it sits. While I don’t doubt the transformative power of marination, I opted to transform it into a crostini here because appetizers are more fun for book club meetings. Plus it gives us an excuse to put the cheese under the broiler because melted cheese > room temperature cheese.

If there are dietary restrictions, just customize your muffuletta. For vegetarians, omit the meat for an olive melt. For lactose intolerant friends, omit the cheese. For keto friends, omit the bread and do a meat, cheese, olive roll up.

  • A baguette
  • Olive oil
  • Garlic powder
  • Thin sliced ham
  • Salami
  • Provolone cheese slices
  • ¾ cup mixed and sliced olives (I used a castelvetrano/kalamata blend)
  • 1/2 cup mild giardiniera
  1. Preheat oven to 425.
  2. Slice baguette and brush each slice with olive oil and top with a light dusting of garlic powder.
  3. Arrange sliced bread on a cookie sheet and bake for 5 to 7 minutes. Meanwhile, mix together sliced olives and giardiniera.
  4. Once you remove the toasted baguette slices from the oven, top each bread slice with a spoon of the olive/giandiniera mixture, a slice of ham, a slice of salami, half a slice of provolone.
  5. Press down on each crostini slightly to smush the olive mixture into the toasted bread.
  6. Turn on broiler. Broil your crostini for 1 to 2 minutes.

Enjoy!

Five Favorite Things: October

Five Favorite Things: October

It’s spooky season, y’all. My youngest stepdaughter insists that spooky season begins with the school year, but I’m more traditional and consider October 1st to be the official start. I’ll be over here watching Hocus Pocus and wearing all of the fall sweaters (possibly all at the same time if it gets cold before I decide it’s acceptable to turn on the heat).

October is by far my favorite month of the year. There is a practical reason for this: It’s my birthday month. But presents and cake aside, I love the changing leaves, fall flavors, incorporating earthy tones into my wardrobe, and Halloween.

Fall Porch Decor: My outdoor rug and bench cushion have been moved inside for the cold weather months, and I have put out the Halloween decor, mums, and pumpkins.

Apple Season: Some people get really excited about pumpkin spice season; I get really excited about cider mill season. Cider donuts and hot apple cider are the absolute best. But I do have an extra goal this month: to recreate my mom’s apple custard pie. She hasn’t made it in years (or at least not when I’ve been around), and I need to learn to make it myself.

Seasonal Cocktails: If you follow Tieghan Gerard of Half-Baked Harvest, you know that every Halloween, she creates new spooky cocktails. Here is her Best Of list. I am definitely trying a couple of these this year. Possibly the Half-Blood Prince and the Golden Snitch.

New TIU fall program. Okay, I know I just said I’m really excited by cocktails and cider donuts right now, and that’s 100% true. But I’m also really excited about my new exercise program.

I’ve been following Tone It Up for about 3 years, and I’m positive I’d be 40 lbs heavier if I didn’t use this app regularly. (Is there a word for when you really like food but you also do burpees several times a week?) TIU is an app, but it’s also an online fitness community, with occasional in-person meet ups for regional groups. Every fall, they have a special program, and this year’s started on Monday.

Upcoming books:

Some great books are coming out this month or else came out in late September. Here are some that I am excited about:


Happy fall!

Arugula radicchio salad with pear and salami

Arugula radicchio salad with pear and salami

Sometimes you just have a lot of salami and pears in your house due to your recent charcuterie photo shoot. I fully realize this is uniquely a Me Problem, but for a moment, let’s pretend that this is an universal experience and you too end up in the kitchen on a random Tuesday saying, “Salami, pear. Pear . . . salami?” as you ponder possibilities for sandwiches and salads. (Thanks for doing this exercise with me. I now feel seen.)

I knew that salami is delicious with arugula and radicchio, so the pear was the wild card pearing here (sorry, not sorry). Add some goat cheese crumbles, and it’s a perfect fall salad. If goat cheese is not your favorite, feta or parmesan would also work here.

Hope you enjoy!

For 4 entree salads:

  • 1 head radicchio, chopped
  • 4 cups baby arugula
  • 4 ounces salami, sliced
  • 2 pears, sliced
  • 4 ounces goat cheese crumbles
  • Olive oil
  • Lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Assemble radicchio, arugula, salami, and pear slices in 4 bowls. Drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Top each salad with goat cheese crumbles and serve.

Five Favorite Things: September

Five Favorite Things: September

No matter how long I have been out of school, September always feels like the start of a new year to me, even more so than January 1st. The world cools, schedules are set in place, and a brisk sense of purpose kicks in. Plus the transition from summer to fall is lovely while the transition from the holidays to January is like tripping and falling into a mud puddle. #NotAWinterGirl

This year, this is what I am excited about:

Visiting Holland, Michigan for the first time with my parents at the end of the month. In fact, since this is a scheduled post, I’m there right now.

Growing up, we didn’t do family vacations. My mother was the caregiver for her own parents, and my grandma needed someone to give her insulin shots every day. Given that my grandmother did not speak English and my grandfather didn’t speak at all after his stroke (though he understood English just fine), finding a caregiver for a week wasn’t really an option. Even years after my grandparents were gone, my parents didn’t travel. They had simply gone too many years without it, and it wasn’t something our family did.

A couple years ago, my sister convinced my parents to go to Mackinac Island, and surprisingly, my home loving parents had a great time. So this time, it’s my turn to vacation with my parents, and for my mom’s 78th birthday, we’re going to a Western Michigan beach town that none of us have ever visited: Holland.

Getting back into the office. Minus a couple of IT-related trips, I haven’t been in the office since March 2020. I’m not sure what your last in-person interactions with colleagues were like, but mine went like this:

‘Bye, everyone. See you in a couple weeks! Oh wait, should we be standing this close to each other?

Which probably isn’t unique except one thing: We were working in the epidemiology department of a major research university. We really should have known better. But we weren’t prepared for shelter-in-place or that we’d soon have unique ways of measuring a six-foot distance (6 to 12 Subway sandwiches! 2 golden retrievers! 1 Leonardo DiCaprio!)

Now I’m returning to a different department and finally meeting my boss, who I have only interacted with on Zoom and email. I’m eager to sit in my new office and interact with my new colleagues from a safe distance of two golden retrievers away.

Books. To be honest, I’m always excited about books. A couple weeks ago, I saw a woman in Hines Park in a hammock reading a book, while her family was probably off playing frisbee or disc golf or something. I have never wanted to be best friends with a complete and total stranger quite so much. I feel like any woman who has a portable reading hammock truly understands how to live, and that when I too have my own reading hammock, I will have arrived.

Currently, the books I am excited about are:

Plenty by Hannah Howard (memoir)

Food writer Hannah Howard is at a pivotal moment in her life when she begins searching out her fellow food people—women who’ve carved a place for themselves in a punishing, male-dominated industry. Women whose journeys have inspired and informed Hannah’s own foodie quests. On trips that take her from Milan to Bordeaux to Oslo and then always back again to her home in New York City, Hannah spends time with these influential women, learning about the intimate paths that led them each toward fulfilling careers. Each chef, entrepreneur, barista, cheesemaker, barge captain, and culinary instructor expands our long-held beliefs about how the worldwide network of food professionals and enthusiasts works.

But amid her travels, Hannah finds herself on a heart-wrenching private path. Her plans to embark on motherhood bring her through devastating lows and unimaginable highs. Hannah grapples with personal joy, loss, and a lifelong obsession with food that is laced with insecurity and darker compulsions. Looking to her food heroes for solace, companionship, and inspiration, she discovers new ways to appreciate her body and nourish her life.

At its heart, this lovely and candid memoir explores food as a point of passion and connection and as a powerful way to create community, forge friendships, and make a family.

Technically I’ve already read this, as I was able to read it as an Amazon First Read, but it officially releases today. I loved this, and I am excited to review it next week.

Never Saw You Coming by Erin Hahn (YA novel)

Eighteen-year-old Meg Hennessey just found out her entire childhood was a lie. So instead of taking a gap year before college to find herself, she ends up traveling north to meet what’s left of the family she never knew existed – all while questioning the ideals she grew up with.

While there, she meets Micah Allen, a former pastor’s kid whose dad ended up in prison, leaving Micah with his own complicated relationship with faith. The clock is ticking on his probation hearing and Micah, now 19, feels the pressure to forgive – even when he can’t possibly forget.

As Meg and Micah grow closer, they are confronted with the heavy flutterings of first love and all the complications it brings. Together, they must navigate the sometimes-painful process of cutting ties with childhood beliefs as they build toward something truer and straight from the heart.

This is a pre-order for me, and it should download to my Kindle on September 7th. Erin Hahn is a local writer (Ann Arbor), so I’m really excited to read her for the first time.

All’s Well by Mona Awad (novel)

Miranda Fitch’s life is a waking nightmare. The accident that ended her burgeoning acting career left her with excruciating, chronic back pain, a failed marriage, and a deepening dependence on painkillers. And now she’s on the verge of losing her job as a college theater director. Determined to put on Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, the play that promised, and cost, her everything, she faces a mutinous cast hellbent on staging Macbeth instead. Miranda sees her chance at redemption slip through her fingers.

That’s when she meets three strange benefactors who have an eerie knowledge of Miranda’s past and a tantalizing promise for her future: one where the show goes on, her rebellious students get what’s coming to them, and the invisible, doubted pain that’s kept her from the spotlight is made known.

With prose Margaret Atwood has described as “no punches pulled, no hilarities dodged…genius,” Mona Awad has concocted her most potent, subversive novel yet. All’s Well is the story of a woman at her breaking point and a formidable, piercingly funny indictment of our collective refusal to witness and believe female pain.

So, this one isn’t a September release, although it is still new, but it’s been on my to-read list since I first heard about it. I finally picked up a copy over the weekend.

Ankle boots and fall shoes. Sandal season is magical, I admit, but there comes a time when a woman tires of painting her toenails. For me, that comes earlier than for most because I basically paint my toenails once in the summer (usually before a vacation) and then let it chip off the rest of the summer.

Because I am a barbarian.

So a return to closed toe shoes is always welcome.

Halfway Down the Stairs: Since 2005, I have been on the staff of a small online literary journal. Today, our September issue publishes, with the theme of Skeletons. I cannot believe it has been 16 years since HDtS published its first issue.

What are you excited about this month?