A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

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“Life: a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.”-pg. 184

This book fell into my lap unexpectedly.  On my maiden visit to my new local library, I came across this book.  I always pick up way too many books (at least four) on every trip.  The cover of this book as well as the title appealed to me immediately, which I know is a terrible stereotype.  However, this system has proven effective for me.

Taking place during the war in Chechnya in 2004, and several years prior, this novel cleverly tells the tale of hardship, love, family, and consequences.   Before reading this book, I’d never heard of Chechnya or knew anything about the wars in Russia.  This really opened my eyes to hardships that are faced around the world much like The Leavers by Lisa Ko and :I am Malala: by Malala Yousafzai.

Each character that Marra creates is expertly developed in just enough time to truly add to the storyline.  I loved his writing style in that he bounces around between one year and the next, in an efficient and elegant way.  He captures the struggle, the tough decisions that need to be made, and the terrible pain that accompanies wartime.

This novel truly floored me.  I was hooked from the first chapter, and could not put it down.  Even after I finished it, I found myself thinking about it.  If you enjoyed reading All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer, you will love this book.

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“As a web is no more than holes woven together, they were bonded by what was no longer there.” -pg. 63

Enjoy!

Mimosas: Otherwise It Would Just Be Juice

It’s only Tuesday, but I can’t be the only one dreaming about the weekend.  Brunch is a good idea year-round, but summer is almost begging us to invite our friends over, make some delicious food, and pop some bottles.

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Photography by Allyson Regan

Now, I’m sure that if you’re reading this, you know how to make a good mimosa.  Or you know how to drink good mimosas.  But I have some tips and tricks for making a great mimosa bar, and a fantastic mimosa.

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Photography by Allyson Regan

Now, most importantly, you will need decent bubbly.  Choose from prosecco, Champagne, sparkling wine, or anything with actual bubbles and alcohol.  My go-to is prosecco, especially since I tend to drink dryer wines.  If you have buckets of cash lying around, empty them out and buy yourself some fancy Champagne from Champagne!  My favorite brand of prosecco is Freixenet, however I also like the Belletti Brand shown below and both options are very affordable.  Keep in mind that the juices will add sweetness and you don’t want the finished beverage to be too sweet.

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Photography by Allyson Regan

Next, you’ll need fruit/mix-ins and juices.  My go-to choices include fresh berries, pomegranate juice, grapefruit juice, and the classic orange juice.  Fresh fruit is always a good choice, as is citrus segments.  Think raspberries, blackberries, pomegranate seeds, strawberries, cranberries, currants, grapefruit, orange, blood orange.  Now, you can go crazy with juices.  I usually have orange juice, pomegranate juice, grapefruit juice, mango juice, pineapple juice and anything else you can think of juicing.  The best part about parties with mimosa bars, is that everyone gets to make the exact drink they want, and they can also try new combinations!

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Photography by Allyson Regan

Ratios are also very important when discussing mimosas.  I generally stick to a 1:3 juice to bubbly ratio.  My guests have never complained.  Also, the order in which you add the items to the glass is important.  You want to add the juice first, then when you add the bubbly, it will mix together nicely.  If you add the fruit before the bubbly, it will cause an absurd amount of excess bubbles to form, so its better to garnish afterwards.  You don’t want to run out of anything, so 3 juice options should be enough, and buy enough bubbly knowing that you will get about 6 mimosas per bottle.

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Photography by Allyson Regan

So dust off your champagne flutes, call your friends, and stock your fridge!  Also, I’m now available for left-handed modeling gigs.

Cheers!

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Photography by Allyson Regan (who loves mimosas BTW)

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

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Strawberry season in Michigan is so fleeting that my tiny apartment-sized freezer is full of the sweet gems.  The great thing about freezing them, is that even if you don’t have time to bake with them when they are in season, you can just pull them out of the freezer when you have time!  One of my favorite ways to enjoy strawberries when they are in season is pairing them with a flaky crust and sour-tart rhubarb, also from Michigan.

Mastering the art of the ideal pie crust can be tricky and frustrating.  As someone who has made a couple of gross pies in her day, I have found a recipe and a couple tried and true tips that work for me.  Some of the expertise comes with experience, and working with your specific flour, altitude, water, etc.  Many experts say that it’s easiest to make your dough in the food processor, however, I’m a firm believer that the blades ruin the flakiness that is key to good crust.

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My go to pie crust recipe can be found in Kate McDermott’s fantastic cookbook, Art of the Pie.  It can be found on page 61 and you’ll only need flour, salt, butter, and water.  Now, you’re your own person, so use any pie crust you feel comfortable with.  If pie makes you uncomfortable, buy this book and use this recipe.  I’m not going to include her recipe on here, because if you are committed to good making good pies, you really should have her book in your cookbook library.  Also, she has so many other great recipes and tips that are very valuable.  I would recommend buying a marble rolling pin.  It helps to keep the dough colder, keeping the butter inside the dough solid until you bake the pie.

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The filling recipe that I use is adapted from Kate’s recipe found on page 250.  I like to keep my fillings simple to let the gorgeous flavor of the just picked fruit shine through.  Just combine the ingredients below and let them cook down inside the pie.  For this pie, I didn’t pre-bake the pie crusts before putting in the filling, like some recipes call for.  It does take a little over an hour for this pie to bake.  I cover the pie with tin foil for the first 20 minutes to help the filling to begin to set.  Uncover for the rest of the baking process.  If you notice that the crust is getting too brown towards the end of baking, just re-cover with foil.

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie Filling

4 cups of strawberries, quartered

2 cups of rhubarb, sliced

1 cup of sugar

1/2 teaspoon lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup flour

Enjoy!

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The Call of the Wild by Jack London

So this story takes place in Alaska so it might not be the best summer read, unless you’re very overheated and want to pretend your brain is frozen.

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“Deep in the forest a call was sounding, and as often as he heard this call, mysteriously thrilling and luring, he felt compelled to turn his back upon the fire and the beaten earth around it, and to plunge in to the forest, and on and on, he knew not where or why; nor did her wonder where or why, the call sounding imperiously, deep in the forest.”-pg. 57

The Call of the Wild tells the story of Buck, removed from his cushy life in California, and finds himself sold into the dog sled life.  He experiences the difficulty of working his way to the lead of the pack and surviving the harsh weather conditions and owners.

Written by the same author of White Fang, Jack London expertly captures struggle to survive in the cold Alaskan air during the Gold Rush from the perspective of a sled dog.   Compared to the first book I read by Jack London, I liked this one from the get go.  Read more about that review here!  The story keeps moving in a short and concise way, while still touching on the importance of the heritage of wolves and dogs share.  If you are a fan of Jack London, or just enjoy dogs and the outdoors, you will enjoy this book.

 

 

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

SWEET: granular, powdered, brown, slow like honey or molasses.  The mouth-coating sugars in milk.  Once, when we were wild, sugar intoxticated us, the first narcotic we craved and languished in.  We’ve tamed it, refined it, but the juice from a peach still runs like a flash flood.                                                                  -Excerpt from Sweetbitter, pg. 8

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I bought this book because a reader that I follow on Instagram listed it as one of her top reads for the year last year.  I added it to my reading stack because I kept reading other reviews about how enticing and phenomenal it was.  And when I started seeing trailers for a show based off the book, I decided to skip a couple of other books in my pile and begin this one.

This is the story of Tess, a young girl who ran away from her mundane life to start over in New York City.  She finds herself in an interview at a well-known NYC restaurant and gets the job.  She learns quickly how much she needs to learn to be successful.  She finds herself deep in the trenches of how tolling and exhausting the industry can be.  But she also finds herself forming a palate, and learning about wine and food.  And heartbreak.

TASTE, Chef said, is all about balance.  The sour, the salty, the sweet, the bitter.  Now your tongue is coded.  A certain connoisseurship of taste, a mark of how you deal with the world, is the ability to relish the bitter, to crave it even, the way you do the sweet.                                                                                                                                 -Excerpt from Sweetbitter, pg. 17

This book is the unabashed, painfully truthful life of a young person finding themselves in the hospitality industry.  The only other book that I’ve ever read that accurately portrays what happens behind service is Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential.  While I work in this industry, my own personal experience has been very different than Tess’.  But the restaurant life in New York is also a lot different from Grand Rapids.  The content and language can be a bit raunchy at times, but so can life behind the bar.  It just goes to show you that when you go out for a meal, often, it’s never ever just dinner.

The prose and descriptions so accurate I could taste the peaches and fresh figs intrigued me in the beginning.  But the story line keep me immersed in the novel.  I read this book in huge gulps, chugging, binging, finding myself finishing it within 4 days.  I highly recommend this book to anyone that’s ever worked in the industry, to anyone thats struggling to find purpose in their life, and to anyone that loves oysters on the half shell with champagne.

Some tomatoes tasted like water, and some like summer lightning.                                                                                                                                              -Excerpt from Sweetbitter, pg. 40

White Fang by Jack London

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I was recommended to read this book by my smart and handsome husband.  It’s a rare read that really shifts your perspective on the world.  I’ll admit that I found it a bit difficult at times to get into the book, but I’m really glad I read it.  Plus, now I understand Leslie Knope’s obsession with Jack London.

White Fang is the title of the novel as well as the name of the main character.  The story starts with his mother, Kiche, whose origins are part wolf and part dog. She belonged to a group of Indians, but deserted them during a famine.  We get a front row seat to White Fang’s puppy and adolescent years when he figures out the laws of nature and then man’s laws.  His life is full of heartbreak and love, and the ending makes the long story worth the read.

The back story is important, but I found it a bit cumbersome to get through.  While it did help to explain White Fang’s personality and round out the story, I think it could’ve been streamlined a bit.  I did really enjoy the last 100 pages or so the most.  Everyone who is considering owning a dog should have to read this book to understand their mannerisms.  I took this book on a recent camping trip and my sister’s puppy was there.  It was really interesting to read about possibly what could be going on in her head when she’s interacting with nature and how necessary it is for an owner to gain the trust of their dog.

Bloody Mary Bar DIY

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Photography by Allyson Regan

I’m at a stage in my life where brunch is the best way to kickstart my weekends.  And I hope I never grow out of this stage.  Come on, lunch food combined with breakfast food?  Mimosas?  Bloody Mary bars?  Not to mention the whole sleeping in and then most likely napping after the delicious meal.

One of my favorite things is to host brunch at my house.  It’s so simple and makes brunch that much better because its less expensive, you can have exactly what you want, and you can wear yoga pants.  Win, win, win.

Whenever I host brunch, I love to set up a bloody mary bar.  It’s super simple and your guests will love it!  It’s easy to customize to you and your guests tastes, but I’m going to outline just a few must haves and some creative ingredients.

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Photography by Allyson Regan

First things first, you’ll need vodka.  Well, you don’t need vodka, this is your bloody bar, so there are no rules/judgements here.  But I would recommend vodka.  My go-to vodka is Titos, I just think it has a really basic but smooth flavor that makes it ideal for bloody marys.  But I also like Svedka vodka and New Amsterdam.  And most of the other kinds.  Okay all the other kinds.

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Photography by Allyson Regan

Next is the tomato component.  You can definitely make your own mix, or just put out really good tomato juice.  For ease on my wallet and space on the bar, I usually just put out a couple kinds of mix instead.  My favorite mix is McClure’s bloody mary mix.  They make delicious pickles, so it’s no surprise that their mix is delicious as well.  Other mix ins that I include are several kinds of hot sauce (Frank’s, Tabasco, etc.), steak sauce (A1 or we brought back this delicious sauce from our recent trip to Costa Rica called Lizano and it’s like a spicy steak sauce), and if your crowd is really adventurous you can put out beef stock (to make the classic Bloody Bull) or beet juice for an extra healthy effect.

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Photography by Allyson Regan

The best part of any bloody mary is assembling your own stirrer.  My brother-in-law likes to use this skewer as an appetizer which isn’t the worst idea he’s ever had.  I found these thin skewers in different sizes at Meijer, but I’ve also seen them at Target.  Meats and cheeses always go over well, and celery sticks are classic.  I just cubed up some local Michigan cheese, and I got delicious ‘meat sticks’ from our local butcher called Sobie Meats.  You can use salamis or sausages as well.  To add something healthy, I added dill sprigs, fresh cucumbers, mini bell peppers, jalapeños, and olives.  Some other crowd favorites are candied bacon, regular bacon, mini cheeseburgers, etc.  But I don’t have time for that.

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Photography by Allyson Regan

For the ease of your guests, you can use large ice cubes and place them into glasses just before your guests arrive.  This way you don’t have to man-handle their ice cubes when they are itching for a drink in their hands.  All that’s left is to enjoy!

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If you haven’t realized it yet, Allyson Regan is an amazing photographer.

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

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Another great Book of the Month selection!

Swimming Lessons is a novel about a young love that blossoms between a budding feminist and her literary professor/writer, set in England.  They fall in love and an unplanned pregnancy brings a tumultuous and emotional time for Ingrid.  She’s unable to finish school, struggling to accept her new daughter, and finds out that her husband is the man she was warned about.  After several miscarriages, and many more mistresses, Ingrid finds herself on the verge of leaving the life she has come to hate.  What actually happened to her is speculation, but Flora never gave up hope that her mom was still alive.  Written from Flora’s point of view as well as from Ingrid’s point of view in the letters that she leaves for Gil in his expansive book collection, you are left to piece together the story and speculate about what really happened.

This book is artfully written.  I am a sucker for books about book stores or writers or books themselves, which this book is about all three of those things.  But it also shows us the complicated webs that love weaves, between husband and wife, mother and daughter, life and loss, betrayal and trust.  The narrative is quite creative in that as soon as you find yourself hooked on Flora’s point of view, the chapter ends and Ingrid’s lost letters enlighten the reader.

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What are the odds that I would start reading this book on May 2nd, the same date that was mentioned two pages in?

It was quite interesting to watch Flora grow up and to watch Ingrid disappear.  Claire Fuller did an excellent job in revealing just the right amount of information to keep us turning the pages.  It’s a medium length book, but a fast read and would make a great book club book.

 

 

 

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

It’s been a really long time since I’ve gotten lost in a book they way I got lost in ‘The Leavers’ by Lisa Ko.  The story she weaves is so artfully and purposefully unraveled.  You are discovering new things about each character as they realize them about themselves.

I picked this book up on a site called Book of the Month.  If you’ve never heard of this subscription box service, it’s pretty great.  They select five books every month that you can choose from based on whatever subscription level you sign up for.  What I really like about them is that you can read a synopsis of each book as well as a review written by a fellow book lover about the book.  They picks are smart and broad, covering a wide variety of genres.  I often use this site when I’m looking for books that I know will be good, but may be in a new genre.  You can also skip the month if you don’t see anything you want.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I am not being paid to promote them, I just really like them.  If you’re interested, click this link to sign up!

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‘The Leavers’ tells the heart-wrenching story of a mother and son, who try to find their home in a world that prevents them from truly knowing each other.  Immigration, adoption, adolescence, heartbreak, mental illness, abuse, and poverty are all topics that find their way between these pages.  After reading this book, my eyes were really opened to what immigrants sometimes have to go through to get into America, all for a better life.  I don’t think this book was based off of a true story, however I do know that there are Immigration Detention Centers in the USA that have less than perfect living conditions and that stories similar to this exist.

It breaks my heart to think about stories such a this one, where a mother leaves her child in her home country and survives the travel conditions to make it here, only to work hard to pay off her debt and then be jailed, abused, and deported.  This book also tackles the topic of adoption, and exposes all sides of it.  This is the first time I’ve read anything about an older child being adopted, one that remembers his birth mother all too well.  Another topic that is touched on can speak to probably almost everyone.  It shows a very raw look at the struggle it is to find where home is for yourself and to find something that you are passionate about in life.  All too often, kids think that they need to figure out everything by the time they get to college when that is unrealistic.  Deming’s story took a good look at this.

Overall, this book really widened my world view and I would highly recommend it.  Also, Lisa Ko’s writing style worked really well for me and I found myself completely submersed in the story.  This is the kind of book that will have you thinking about the characters even when you aren’t reading it.

Burrata: The Better Mozzarella

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Let’s talk cheese.  If you like mozzarella and good food in general, you’ll love burrata.  Trust me. It’s creamy and fresh, texturally unique compared to other cheese, and so versatile.  If you want to learn more about the process behind making fresh cheese, check it out here!  Or you can read about it here.

Burrata is traditionally from the Apulia region in Italy and is made with water buffalo’s milk or cow’s milk.  It is a thin shell of mozzarella holding in a creamy mixture called stracciatella, which is basically cream and strings of mozzarella curd.  I first had burrata when I was in Italy and we visited a mozzarella factory.  The burrata in Italy tastes different, mostly because the cream they use is the naturally separated cream from the milk, and in the U.S., cream that is mechanically separated is normally used.  The flavor difference also comes from the type of milk used.  The burrata that you can get most commonly in America is made from cow’s milk.

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Here in the midwest, it can be difficult to track down this cheese.  My go-to place is called Martha’s Vineyard.  They usually have burrata in stock and if they don’t, they are pretty good about letting you know when they will have it next.  If you aren’t in Grand Rapids, you should be able to find it at any local specialty wine or cheese shop.

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The brand that I used for this cheese plate (let’s be real….. I ate this for lunch) is called Liuzzi Cheese,  The flavor is really great and it lends itself well to a lot of different dishes and flavors.  It is made in Conneticut, but it is owned by two Italian borthers.  My favorite thing to do is pair it with really great heirloom tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, balsamic reduction, good extra virgin olive oil, and toasted crostinis.  Oh and lots and lots of freshly cracked black pepper.

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I’ve also melted this on sourdough bread with pesto or chipotle aioli and thick cut tomatoes in a grilled cheese.  Or you can melt it on top of a seared chicken breast or top a risotto.  Either way, give it a try and I’m sure you’ll love it!

Want to read more about burrata? Check out these links below.

Bon Appetit

Fine Dining Lovers

Culture Cheese Magazine

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Enjoy!