Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Bel Canto

Bel Canto is easily one of the most beautifully written novels I have ever read. Ann Patchett has imbued her characters with such heart and humanity, all while keeping the book well-paced and intriguing.
A lavish birthday party for a powerful Japanese businessman is being thrown at the vice president's house of a South American country, at which a world-renowned opera singer is also singing. At the tale end of the soprano's performance, a group of terrorists break into the house and take everyone hostage, inciting panic and anxiety inside and outside of the house. The hostage situation goes on for months, and the captives slowly develop their own rituals and relationships for the time spent together. The men left inside the vice president's mansion reflect on their marriages, great loves are discovered, and the beautiful sound of opera becomes a part of daily life. Their idyllic situation, however, is a dangerous and fragile one, and I should warn you that this book does not have a happy ending.
Although the book cover did not sell me on this, several recommendations from people whose opinion I respect convinced me to pick it up. Thank goodness I finally listened to reason; Ann Patchett is a phenomenal writer who can interweave the stories of several characters from a variety of backgrounds and cultures with great skill. The romances are gracefully portrayed, and the tenuous line between sympathy for the terrorists and desire for the hostages to be freed is constantly being crossed. You may find yourself longing to hear opera play as you read, or finish the book and feel grateful to go outside whenever you'd like. Bel Canto is spell-binding, and I promise that if you enjoy wonderful fiction, you will read it time and time again.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

American Library Association Convention Photos!

Since I was but a wee little Abbi, I knew library work was for me. My mom told people this week that I knew how to fix the toilet in the Indiantown Public Library before I was ten, just to show how much time we spent there. The first thing I do in a new city is get a library card, and feel passionately about everyone having equal access to information at public libraries. Events like the ALA Annual Convention and the National Book Festival in September (put on by the Library of Congress) reinforce the important work libraries do in our country, and I feel so lucky to have been able to attend this year!
Toni Morrison was the keynote speaker, and she was incredible. I've only read one book by her, but got teary when she got up on stage because she is such a literary giant. Did you know she started out working as a page in her hometown library? No flash photography allowed, so apologies for the blurry view, but we were as close as we possibly could have been in the third row.
Listen, libraries are important and all, but so is the World Cup. There were groups like this all over the convention center during soccer games; this one was US vs. Ghana. We put up a good effort; better luck next time, USA!
Tony Diterlizzi went to high school in Martin County, and Mommi knows him from several book talks. He's so nice, and has a great new juvenile fiction book coming out in September, so keep an eye out if you're a fantasy fan!
An exhibitor gave away free glasses of champagne. Say no more, we were there!
Salman Rushdie was the first speaker we saw on Saturday, and I was impressed with how much he seemed to enjoy himself! Throughout the lecture, he chuckled and gave little asides about his life that made him seem so personable and friendly. We got there early and had front row seats!
There is a very cute children's book coming out by the end of the year about a bear who finds a little boy in the woods and adopts him, although he makes a terrible pet (impossible to house train). Publishers have their upcoming books on display in the exhibits section of the conference, and it's so much fun to see what's coming up in the book world!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Visit to the city

As much as I love my city, DC is completely devoid of Summers and Shelton family members (at least for the time being; Summer, I'm talking to you!), meaning I spend time missing my wonderful relatives. It makes visits like the one this week from my mom so special; we get to catch up on everything and I love showing off the many sides of our capitol. Rather than having my usual outfit, book and recipe posts, this week I'm going to share some pictures of what Mommi and I did during her trip. Don't fear, the regular posts will return soon!

Mia got to really bond with her Grandma Heinie. (She really is like our baby girl!) Mom brought up some treats and a new toy for her, so she was a happy dog!

We drank tasty, tasty drinks at our almost-nightly cocktail hours. This one was a Salty Dog, grapefruit juice and vodka, with a salt-lined rim. Sooo delicious, and such wonderful company! On another tangent, everyone I introduced Mommi to remarked how alike we look, and this picture really does nothing to disprove that theory.
We only cooked vegetarian food, mostly because it's so easy and we didn't have a ton of time to be putting big meals together. Here John Paul and I are making a melon salad and minted pea soup; they are sooo easy, and perfect for summer so I'll post those recipes soon!Mommi and I trekked out in the unbelievable heat to see Michelle Obama's gorgeous gown for the inaugural balls. Those are her Jimmy Choos on the lower right corner, size 10ish! She really does have impeccable style. The First Ladies exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American History is a don't-miss.
There are some new pieces in the modern art wing of the National Gallery of Art, so I did a little posing. It doesn't hurt that it was in the high 90s outside, and the NGA is air conditioned!

Tomorrow I'll put some pictures up of the ALA convention. Not to brag, but we saw Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Will Shortz (editor of the NYT crossword puzzle), and Tony Diterlizzi (Spiderwick Chronicles illustrator). I love being a librarian!

Friday, June 25, 2010

White Hot

Top: F21
Jeans and clutch: Gap
Belt: Banana Republic
Sandals: Steve Madden
Earrings: H&M
Ring: Art Mart (hostess gift from my wonderful Mommi!)
My mom is here from Illinois for the week! Luckily, she's already seen a lot of the touristy stuff, so we get to spend our time walking around cute shops and drinking tasty cocktails. This weekend we're going to the American Library Association convention here in the district, so I'll have some great pictures and stories on Monday when we meet back here.
Wednesday was a blazing hot day here in DC. I mean, blazing hot. Of course, that was the day Mommi and I picked to walk around Georgetown to do some shopping and general girly chit chat. I decided to go for the downtown, sloppy chic look; not only does it mean I could be a little unkempt, but it also allows for me to debut this cute new ring Mommi brought down from Illinois. It's so summery and fun!
Did I still sweat? Yes. Did I look good doing so? Hope so.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Mexican Wedding Cookies

Apparently these cookies have roots in several cultures, with only the nuts and shapes changing in each country. Italian wedding cookies are made with hazelnuts and shaped like crescents, in Russia a 1/4 c. of flour is substituted for more ground nut, and in Mexico, cinnamon is added to the mix. The gist remains the same, though: a very slightly sweet, crumbly cookie dusted with powdered sugar. Because no eggs are included in the dough, these will keep in an airtight container for up to two weeks. Seriously, though, good luck trying to keep your hands off these treats for fourteen days!
As people left the pinxtos party on Saturday night, I sent bags of these home as parting gifts. They're great with coffee to start your day. Hey, a little sugar rush in the morning never hurt anyone.

Mexican Wedding Cookies (from Katie Lee Joel's The Comfort Table: Recipes for Everyday Occasions, 2009)
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 c. powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 1/2 c. whole wheat flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 cup pecans, ground

1. With an electric mixer, beat butter and 1/2 c. powdered sugar. Beat in vanilla. Stir in flour, salt, cinnamon and pecans. Form into a ball, cover with plastic wrap, and chill for 1 hour.
2. Preheat oven to 375.
3. Roll dough into 1 inch balls (I made mine more like golf ball sized). Place on baking sheets and bake for 15 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.
4. Roll each cookie in remaining powdered sugar. Store in airtight container!
Makes 20-30 cookies, depending on size.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

I Capture the Castle

The book was a gift from my Grandma in North Carolina more than a decade ago, and my copy is remarkably well loved. I've always been an avid journaler (not journalist!), and love 17-year old Cassandra Mortmain's writings of her eccentric family.
The story takes place in England, where Cassandra lives with her beautiful older sister Rose, quirky artistic stepmother Topaz, former literary great father James, younger brother Thomas, and a dog in a decrepit castle. There's also Stephen, a very handy neighbor who soon reveals his deep love for Cassandra. She manages to see the romantic, bohemian side of their situation, although the family frequently eats crackers for dinner, has sold most of their furniture, hasn't paid their rent in years, and has to use an old wooden door as a table when company comes to visit.
Things begin to pick up for the Mortmains when the American Cotton brothers, owners of the castle, move to town and befriend the family. Soon Rose and Cassandra are both dealing with suitors and the delicate social structure of 1930s England.
Many reviews of this book have compared it to Jane Austen's novels; there is indeed something Austenish in Cassandra's honest portrayals of a lower class family trying to keep up appearances with their wealthier neighbors, as well as the rather old-fashioned descriptions of courting. The writing never feels dated, though, and Cassandra's musings are thoroughly captivating. I Capture the Castle is a great read any time of the year, although the setting of dreary, rainy English countryside may help cool you down in the summer heat.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Marinated Olives

Saturday was a busy day at our apartment. A very busy day.
John Paul is pretty passionate about all things Spanish, but especially the food. As a result, everyone we know in DC is well aware of how great the food is, but only because he's always going on about it, not because they've had everything JP raves about. This weekend, he changed that! We had some friends over for Spanish pinxtos (pronounced peen-chos), which are basically larger tapas served on top of bread. He made chatka y huevo con mahonesa y caviar (imitation crab and grated egg with olive oil aioli and caviar), salmon ahumado (smoked salmon with olive oil aioli and hard boiled egg), morcilla a la plancha (catalan style blood sausage with onions), a blue cheese mousse with walnuts, and more. Y'all, we completely stuffed ourselves! JP picked up some delicious cheese, everyone brought wine, and there was a huge game of Mentiroso (liar's dice).

This whole event was my man's idea, so I mostly helped by cleaning dishes and tasting everything. You know, to make sure the food wasn't poisoned or anything. It's a hard job, but someone's gotta do it.
We did need some munchy stuff for our vegetarian friends, so I whipped up some marinated olives and Mexican Wedding Cookies. They're both super, super easy, and are guaranteed to be a hit at any gathering. I like to make extras, and nosh on them throughout the week. Come back on Thursday for the cookie recipe!

Marinated Olives
2 jars green olives
1 or 2 jars of black olives
1/3 c. olive oil
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
Lemon zest from 1/4 lemon
1 garlic clove, smashed
Salt and pepper

Combine everything in a medium bowl, coating olives with oil. Let sit for an hour at room temperature. If not using right away, refrigerate until an hour or two before needed.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Mi Padre

Happy Father's Day to Daddy Man! He never fails to make me smile, and I'm so glad he's mine.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Kiss and Tell

Tee: Gap
Pants: J.Crew
Belt: Banana Republic
Shoes: Gianni Bini from Dillard's
Necklace: Urban Outfitters
Purse: Thrifted from Goodwill

Sometimes it just takes a couple of accessories to boost the "oomph" of an outfit. It's been such a blah kind of week that I wanted to wear something more than the ole cropped pants and t-shirt. I love this statement necklace; it instantly jazzes whatever you pair it up with. The heels are golden oldies I've had for at least six years, and the color is perfect to cheer me up.
John Paul and I stopped by a couple of bookstores in Georgetown, just to browse and get out of the apartment before it got too hot. Bridge Street Books on M Street has some great stuff; if you're looking for a locally owned place for literature, be sure to check it out!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

No-Knead Parmesan Bread

Oh goodness, I love baking bread. The whole apartment smells amazing and fresh, and it improves any dish you serve it with. I even love the way the dough looks as it's rising! When it's cooled enough to cut into and taste, the crust crunches perfectly and is better than anything store bought.
All that aside, homemade breads I don't have to knead are good by me, and that's why I love this recipe so much. Not only does the Parmesan cheese melt into the bread, leaving little cheesy holes of tastiness, but there's a bit of spice due to the ground pepper that's mixed in. In addition, this dough is left to rise on its own for a good 12-18 hours, making it the most effortless bread recipe I've ever seen! Although it does require a good deal of patience (there are over 14 hours of rest time for the dough), it's great if you want to put minimal effort into homemade goods. Just start the dough before you go to sleep on a Friday night, check on it before you run your errands on Saturday, and bake it later that afternoon.

Parmesan No Knead Bread (from Williams-Sonoma)
3 c. all purpose flour
1/4 tsp. active dry yeast
1 3/4 tsp. salt
2 tsp. ground black pepper
1/2 c. grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 c. Parmesan cheese cubes (1/4 inch chunks)
Cornmeal as needed

1. In a large bowl, combine flour, yeast, salt, pepper, and both cheeses. Add 1 1/2 c. plus 2 Tbsp. warm water and stir until blended (you can use your hands; I know I did); the dough should be shaggy and thick. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature until the surface is dotted with bubbles, 12-18 hours.
2. Place dough on a lightly floured work surface. Sprinkle dough with a bit of flour and fold dough onto itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest for 15 minutes.
3. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth, just cheesecloth or plain cotton), with cornmeal. Put dough on towel and dust with a bit more cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise until dough is doubled in size, about 2 hours.
4. Preheat oven to 450 degrees, and place 3 quart cast iron pot in oven for 30 minutes.
5. Carefully remove pot from oven. Place dough into pot and shake once or twice to evenly distribute dough. Cover with lid and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and continue baking until loaf is browned, 15-30 minutes longer.
6. Transfer pot to wire rack and cool for 10 minutes. Using oven mitts, turn pot on side and turn bread onto rack. Let cool until you can't wait any longer then slice and eat up!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Lonely Polygamist

Something about polygamy is just so intriguing to me. How does the family manage? What sort of jobs are left up to the wives? How on earth can one man provide for several families?
Brady Udall tells the story of one such family in his second novel, The Lonely Polygamist. Golden Richards is the title character, and husband to four wives, father to 28 children, and a general contractor. His most recent job consists of building an addition to a whorehouse in Nevada, meaning he spends five days of the week away from his large family, which is crumbling without him. He has told everyone in his community that he is actually building a senior citizen center, and the lie is beginning to get to him. The novel also focuses on Golden's fourth wife Trish, a 27 year old woman who is starting to doubt her commitment to a husband who hasn't paid attention to her since the stillbirth of a son nearly a year ago, and Rusty, Golden's 12 year old son who can't get anyone to notice him in the bulging houses he lives in and has taken up a friendship with a man who builds bombs and fireworks.
Udall sets the story in 1970s Utah, and weaves the three narratives, along with short passages describing past experiences of the family, masterfully. Each of the three main characters offer some perspective that is easy to sympathize with: the pressure Golden feels at having to constantly be available to his family, Trish's difficulties with the other wives and feelings of isolation, and Rusty's decision to act out because it's the only way anyone notices him among his 27 siblings. It certainly takes the glow out of polygamy, and is by turns funny and tragic. Although it's 600 pages long, I got through the book in less than a week; it boils down to a story of family, and that's something we can all relate to.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Poached eggs and mushrooms

There are two parts to this meal posting. One involves my laziness, and the other other conveys my newfound respect for mushrooms. Yes, Mom and Haley, I can hear you gasping in surprise about that last part.
Do you ever feel like putting little to no effort into a meal? When I feel like that, eggs are at the top of my list. They are so versatile: poached, fried, scrambled, omeleted (can we turn that into a verb?), hard-boiled, there is no way I don't like them. They're quick and easy, and can be combined with almost anything to make a meal.
To add to this, John Paul has introduced me to the mushroom. I spent a lot of time complaining about how gross it is to eat fungus...then John Paul made duxelles, and my mind was changed. Mushrooms are complex and subtle, take on the flavor of whatever they're cooked with, and are especially delicious when sauteed until kind of caramelized. I'm still not crazy about them raw, but baby steps, my friends.
Enter this recipe. There are few ingredients, but it tastes like more, due to the heated tomatoes, homemade bread with bits of parmesan in it, browned mushrooms, and custardy eggs. Everything comes together beautifully, and it can be an impressive meal to throw together on short notice, or when you feel like something a step above cereal in terms of effort.
So this post only includes a picture or two because I didn't realize it was going to be a full meal until everything came together. It's surprisingly filling, so don't plan on a side salad or anything. On that end, check back on Thursday for the recipe for Parmesan bread that went along with this!

Poached Eggs with Mushrooms (adapted for two people from Real Simple)
1 Tbsp. vinegar, preferably white
4 eggs
2 thick slices bread, toasted
2 c. sliced mushrooms
1 tomato, sliced into four thick rings
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

1. In a deep, large pan, bring 3 inches of water to a simmer. Add vinegar.
2. In a different skillet, add 1 Tbsp. olive oil and heat over medium-high. Heat through on either side, about 1 minute per. Transfer to plate.
3. Heat another Tbsp. olive oil in skillet and add mushrooms. Brown for 7ish minutes, tossing occasionally.
4. While mushrooms are cooking, crack eggs carefully into simmering water, keeping yolks and whites intact. Cook about 3 minutes, until whites are completely opaque, then remove from water with slotted spoon.
5. Assemble: place 2 tomato slices on each slice of bread, followed by mushrooms and topped with eggs. Salt and pepper to taste. Smoked pimenton is optional.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Girly Warrior

Dress: Anthropologie
Belt: Thrifted at Goodwill
Ring: F21
Sandals: Michael Antonio c/o Piperlime

We made a pit stop at Ikea to pick up some stuff (including a fabulous cobalt cast iron and enamel Dutch oven), and, as per usual, I dressed up for it. It was blisteringly hot outside, and I really couldn't be bothered with pants. The humid summer heat calls for short dresses and sandals. Ladies, show off those legs!
I love this dress so much I bought it in two colors (the other is navy blue); it's great as a tiny dress or a tunic with leggings. As for the belt, it's a treasure from Goodwill.
Really, though, the standout for the outfit is the ring. Have you ever seen a ring as awesome as this one? It fits perfectly, and is so playful and fun! It's kind of ridiculous how often I've worn it considering it's only been in my jewelry box for a few months. The accessories and shoes make this outfit feel a bit girly warriorish; is anyone else getting that?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Black Bean Salad

Tuesday was absolutely perfect here in DC: blue skies, sunny, breezy and not humid at all. John Paul and I decided that we needed to take advantage of such gorgeous weather, and packed up our lunch to picnic at a park near our apartment. Mia even came along for the ride! We spread our blanket out under a tree, ate our wonderful meal, and then laid back to ponder what shapes the clouds looked like. All in all, a great way to spend an afternoon.
It just so happened that we had this delicious salad in the fridge, which is the world's most perfect picnic fare. Not only is this a colorful, vegetable-heavy dish, but it's also incredibly versatile; we brought along some tortillas to wrap the beans in, but it would also be great tossed with spinach for some more veggie filler, or as a dip for chips. The dressing is also really, really delicious and light, the perfect mix of sweet and slightly tart. The best part? You don't have to cook anything! This is great to make when it's just too hot to stand in front of the stove.

Kaleidoscope Black Bean Salad (vinaigrette recipe found here)
2 cans black beans, rinsed
4 bell peppers, roughly diced
1 jalapeno pepper, seeds and ribs removed, roughly chopped
1 bag frozen corn, thawed (you can also use two steamed cobs with the kernels cut off)
1 lime, halved
1/4 c. olive oil
1 tsp. cumin
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Throw beans, peppers and corn in a medium bowl.
2. Squeeze the juice of the lime into a jar, then add oil and spices. Put top onto jar and shake vigorously until ingredients are combined.
3. Pour vinaigrette on top of salad and toss. This will stay good in the fridge for three or four days.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Imperfectionists

Tom Rachman has captured some pathetic, funny and, above all, human stories in his debut novel The Imperfectionists. The setting is an English-language international newspaper set in Rome, and each chapter follows a different employee. There is Arthur Gopal, who is the laziest person at the paper until a personal tragedy jumpstarts his ambition to be a better reporter; Winston Cheung, the primate studies grad student who is trying out for the Cairo reporter position against a more seasoned and irritating journalist; Oliver Ott, the grandson of the paper's founder who loves his basset hound more than his job; and even Ornella de Monterecchi, a woman who has been reading every article in the newspaper since the 1970s, and has fallen behind the current times because of it. I would call it more of a short story collection than a novel, but each chapter does follow a timeline and furthers the downfall of a newspaper that is stuck in the past.
I wanted to read this book every second until I finally finished it, then wished I had savored it a bit more. The characters are so infinitely sympathetic, and Rachman's writing is breezy and fresh. It's been on several bestseller lists since being released in April, and the news is that Brad Pitt's company has bought the rights to turn it into a film. Jump on the bandwagon and read this before you're out of the loop!
P.S. How much do you love this cover?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Urban chic

Blouse: Gap
Skirt: Gap
Sandals: Steve Madden
Necklaces: Goodwill/Gainesville boutique

Saturday was a perfect day for exploring a new neighborhood in DC, which is exactly what John Paul and I did. On a hunt for some stuff for our apartment, we checked out Logan Circle, full of great independent stores and completely delicious food! If you're in that area of the city, be sure to stop by Masa 14 (Latin-Asian fusion; great small plates for lunch), Hunted House (1950s-1970s furniture), Miss Pixie's (consignment furniture), Pulp (fabulous cards for every single occasion), and Home Rule (where I picked up our only purchase, a microplane zester). Although we didn't get anything on our list, it's great to have a list of local stores that stock cute stuff!
I got this top a couple weeks ago, and love it so, so much! It's really loose and silk/cotton blend, so it breathes for the summer, plus the print isn't stuffy for a button down. The skirt is actually black velvet, so maybe not great for the summer humidity, but at least it's short! The sandals are the reason I look forward to summer; they go with everything.
It should be mentioned that John Paul put up with parking illegally so I could run out and pose for these pictures before it started raining. He's the most patient person!